Why The Hockey News’ Ken Campbell is Wrong About Alex Ovechkin

File:Defense.gov photo essay 080220-F-6684S-642.jpg

Photo by Adam M. Stump via Wikimedia Commons

You know, there was a time when I relished The Hockey News, and really any hockey writing I could get my hands on. I grew up in the sticks in Wisconsin, where you can’t find jack about hockey, and so to convince your parents to buy a THN magazine was a real treat. I’ve never forgotten that feeling, and I want those old reporting institutions to continue, but it isn’t going to happen with haphazard attempts at analysis like Ken Campbell’s piece on Ovechkin from today. In it, he tries to argue that Ovechkin is going to have the worst 50-goal season in NHL history because his plus-minus isn’t good. After the jump, let’s take a look at some of these gems.

At some point, Ovechkin is going to have to decide what kind of player he wants to be. If he’s content picking up the Rocket Richard Trophy after every season and either not making the playoffs or losing in the first round, then he’s certainly on the right track. But surely it can’t be all that difficult to be a little more dogged without the puck in your own end. Certainly Ovechkin’s numbers wouldn’t suffer that badly if he played with a little more diligence defensively. In fact, his numbers might actually be better because of his ability to create things off the rush.

So, losing in the playoffs, Ovechkin’s fault. Got it…wait. Didn’t you talk about Ovechkin’s playoff performance a couple of years ago? Didn’t you say in 2012:

But under Dale Hunter in these playoffs, Ovechkin has done everything he has been asked. He isn’t exactly a shot-blocking demon, but he’s putting his body in the way of shots. He’s playing both ends of the ice. He isn’t cheating by darting up the ice out of the defensive zone before his team even has control of the puck. Ovechkin would have been exposed if he played the way he has in the past.

…Now the Capitals are far more turgid, defense-minded and typical of a team that has more success in the playoffs.

Well, I hate to break it to you, but he wasn’t by the numbers any better defensively in those playoffs than Matt Hendricks. And younger Alex Ovechkin was outstanding in the playoffs. Also, generally speaking, he’s managing (with some help in deployment) to resurrect a career that was at its low point in 2012.

It was always his offense that was best, and most important – especially his shooting. Rather than the hollow echoes of an out-of-date, team effect and luck-ridden stat like plus-minus, let’s look at a real contribution. Over the last six years, among 4,568 player performances, here are the top 16 major shooting contribution seasons (measured in Team Fenwick Taken%, or player’s shots + player’s missed shots, divided by the team’s shots + missed shots in the games a player participated):

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Those additional categories to the right demonstrate the player’s shooting percentage, his linemates’ shooting percentage, and the difference (I call it Puck Hog +/-, because taking a certain amount of shot volume functions like a behavior). His performance above his linemates’ this year has been extraordinary; he’s shooting nearly 9% better than them, which incidentally drags him out of the dirt from my piece on hogging the puck (that I just linked). It’s that consistent, talented, extreme amount of shot volume that has allowed the Washington Capitals to, year-in year-out, maintain overall shooting percentages above league average. Oh, and also…that terrible, so-low-it’s-unsustainable 3% his linemates are shooting? That is a heavy weight on Ovechkin’s plus-minus, and completely out of his hands.

What’s more, let’s look at that list again. One player held up to the light of 4,500 performances these last seven years, and every one of his seasons is up there. This is an otherwordly-important player for his offense, and by his shooting talent he has every justification to continue doing so. Historically, this would be like Campbell telling Mario Lemieux to tone it down in 1989-90 (59 GP, 45 G, 78 A, 123 PTS, 226 SOG, -18), the year before his Penguins won the Cup. And two years before they won it again.

Yes, possession-wise the Capitals are at the middle-of-the-pack, but there are two disclaimers here: one, Ovechkin is doing no less than Backstrom in tilting possession in the Caps’ favor:

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Screen grab from ExtraSkater.com

So, not his fault there (nevermind the fact that a higher shooting percentage helps further offset possession issues)…and two, the Caps are getting better as the season progresses:

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Image from ExtraSkater.com

Not only is this plus-minus approach of Campbell’s not working, it’s not even applicable. We’re talking about a generational talent by using a stat widely discredited by anyone in hockey analysis who’s been paying attention. It’s mind-boggling that a bastion of hockey analysis would be putting something like this out there (seriously, what does a “Worst 50-Goal Season” even mean?). We can do better, in fact I want them to do better. And it would all start by just taking a look at some of the great work the stats community is doing right now.

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8 thoughts on “Why The Hockey News’ Ken Campbell is Wrong About Alex Ovechkin

    • Thanks.

      That 3% is specifically what the other people he shares his ice time with shoot. So that’s about as directly correlated as you can get to his plus-minus, as well as his assist totals. And wouldn’t you know it? He has a low assist total this year as well.

  1. And at the end of the day, after all these advanced and not-advanced stats, when not on the PP Ovi surrenders FAR more goals against than he manufactures (and he does that at the highest rate in the NHL). I dont have the stats , but I would bet that he has given up the most goals against as a forward in the whole NHL this year.

    Advanced stats are fun but they are no replacement for common sense.

  2. please. he’s minus 32. MINUS 32. 2nd from worst place in the ENTIRE league. metric it all you want. he’s still MINUS 32 and MINUS 32 is absolutely terrible. To be MINUS 32 after scoring 45 goals is almost unbelievable. he’s a one way player. i’ve seen him float and fail to back check for years now and he gets a pass because he can do one thing very well and consistently. score goals. about half of them on the PP. he could be an absolute beast if he played both ways like Yzerman or Messier in their prime.

    • Yzerman, who went -24 in just 51 games in his third season, or Messier, a part of the all-offense, little-defense Oilers dynasty in his prime. Even the best have years like this.

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