Many in the analytics community are in agreement with many mainstream analysts who believe that Alexander Ovechkin merits serious consideration for MVP.
I disagree with all of them.
To be fair, Ovechkin has had a good season and there really aren’t any forwards who have separated themselves from the pack. Still, giving Ovechkin the MVP would be a travesty.
Mainstream analysts see that Ovechkin’s 47 goals leads the league by 7, he has a +/- of +11 – which looks positively stellar compared to the disastrous -35 he put up last year – and that the Capitals are going to make the playoffs. That’s all they need to know.
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To them I say, it’s time to look beyond goals. Ovechkin’s offensive numbers aren’t particularly impressive. In 5-on-5 play, he’s 90th in the league in points per 60 minutes. Plus, Ovechkin has only 26 assists, a microscopic 14 of which are 5-on-5. Since 1970, the fewest assists by a forward to win MVP in a full season was 45 – and that was by Brett Hull in 1990-91, when he had 86 goals. Even adjusting for the overall decrease in scoring in the league since 1991, Ovechkin’s season isn’t in the same universe.
The love from some in the analytics community is more unexpected. Their argument focuses primarily on Ovechkin’s solid shot attempt differential of 54.5 percent. They then apply some magic analytics pixie dust by disregarding Ovechkin’s actual goal differential to calculate what the Capitals’ “expected” goals for and against when Ovechkin is on the ice would be if Ovechkin’s linemates and goalies had a “league-average shooting and goaltending,” rather than the considerably below-average shooting and save percentages they actually have.
One commentator suggested that the Capitals’ shooting percentage when Ovechkin is on the ice should be assumed to increase by 8 points from 9.12 percent to 9.20 percent, and the Capitals’ save percentage should be assumed to increase by 14 points, from 90.9 percent to 92.3 percent.
In other words, these analytics experts are assuming that Ovechkin’s productivity is artificially low because of bad luck and natural variance in volatile stats like shooting and save percentage.
They seem oblivious to the possibility that his linemates’ and goalies’ struggles are caused by Ovechkin’s play.
Aside from being a premier goal scorer on the power play, there are two things about Ovechkin’s game that stand out. First, he has never seen a shot he didn’t like. Over the past four seasons Ovechkin attempted 2,541 shots, a mind-boggling 635 more than anyone else in the league. Second, although his defense has definitely been better under new coach Barry Trotz, Ovechkin is still prone to grotesque defensive lapses.
Assuming that Ovechkin “should” be getting league average shooting and save percentages from his teammates conveniently assumes these problems away.
When a player is as poor defensively as Ovechkin is, it isn’t realistic to assume his play will have no impact on his goalies’ save percentages.
When a team’s offense runs through a player with a unique propensity to shoot indiscriminately, miss the net a ton, and rarely pass, then it isn’t realistic to assume that his linemates’ shooting percentages are going to be the same as they would be if they played with a more conventional player.
So I’m going to suggest something truly radical: to gauge Ovechkin’s value we should focus on real-life goals.
When we look at goal metrics, it turns out that when Ovechkin is on the ice in 5-on-5 play, the Capitals’ goal differential this season is 0.8 percent lower than when he isn’t on the ice (this is called Goals For Percentage “Rel.”, as in “relative” to the rest of the team). In other words, 5-on-5 the Capitals do better when Ovechkin isn’t on the ice than when he is.
For some elite players, it would be fair to dismiss such a result as an aberration. Over the relatively small sample of 70 games, it would be reasonable to conclude that the player was a victim of variance; that he’s just on the wrong side of puck luck.
This year’s negative numbers aren’t an aberration for Ovechkin, they’re the norm. They’re most likely an accurate reflection of his true contribution to his team.
Contrary to what the analysts are saying, Ovechkin isn’t even break-even for the Caps, let alone the league’s MVP.
The Department of Hockey Analytics employs advanced statistical methods and innovative approaches to better understand the game of hockey. Copyright © 2015 IJay Palansky, The Department of Hockey Analytics. Distributed by Torstar Syndication Services.