Ovechkin’s renaissance all about shot quality

Alex Ovechkin put in a rebound 1:34 into overtime Tuesday night, giving the Washington Capitals a 4-3 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets. (Alex Brandon/AP)
November 26, 2013, 1:58 PM

Although the Shot Quality Project has focused mainly on goaltending, the same principles apply when evaluating shooters.

Spikes in shooting percentage are generally the result of better opportunities, but in a game as chaotic as hockey, it is difficult to replicate the same scenario from year to year. So when shooting percentage rises too high above the expected norm, the analytics community correctly identifies these spikes as unsustainable, but what happens when a player unexpectedly declines during his prime?

The perfect test case was Alex Ovechkin.

During his first five seasons, Ovechkin was the most dominant scorer in the NHL—a shot-producing machine who averaged 56 goals per 82 games. Then, during what was supposed to be his prime, he regressed by 19 goals.

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After their spectacular first-round playoff flame out in 2010 versus the Canadiens (as the No. 1 seed, they lost the final three games of a seven-game series), the Capitals attempted to make Ovechkin more defensively responsible. This affected his offensive production. During 2010-11 and ’11-12, his shot rate declined by almost one full shot per game and his shooting percentage dropped by two percent.

Then he magically reappeared post lockout scoring at a higher rate than his first five seasons. His shot production slightly lower, but his shooting percentage and power play production was driving his scoring to new heights. Armed with four seasons of shooting data for Ovechkin, I mapped it out to see if I could provide any answers as to what changed.

One of the things that became evident is that Ovechkin relies on the rush and the power play to create offence. He roars through the neutral zone using elite speed, an explosive release and an incredible ability to create space for himself to unleash a barrage of shots. You will rarely find him registering shots from rebounds or deflections at the front of the net—through 1,000 shots only five percent were from rebounds or deflections.

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We can see from the heat map where he likes to unleash his shots and the area where he causes the most damage. Ovechkin prefers to fire pucks from the left side of the ice, where he has had the most success the past four seasons.

Looking at his shooting percentage numbers, he doesn’t seem to have that great a divide between his even-strength and power-play percentages. Similar to the reasoning behind goaltender save percentages, an average NHL shooter will convert five percent of his clean opportunities. Ovechkin’s speed and elite release are good for an extra two goals per 100 shots, for an above-average seven percent.

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When provided with transition opportunities, Ovechkin’s success rate rises to seven goals above average per 100 shots. The same conclusion can be reached with shooters as it is with goaltenders. More pre-shot movement equals more success. With only a two percent difference in even-strength and power-play production over the sample I wanted to compare and contrast Ovechkin’s results. I used the 2010-11 and ’11-12 versus the ’12-13 and ’13-14 seasons to see if I could identify the reason for his return to dominance.

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Simplifying the data to 100-shot samples and his large sample expected shooting percentages, Ovechkin’s even strength results amounted to 1.5 extra goals per 100 shots. Not insignificant, but not the area where most of the improvement occurred. While reviewing game film, it became clear that the Capitals coaching staff has made tactical changes to the power play, which has resulted in Ovechkin’s goal explosion. Randy Carlyle made note of this on Saturday and wisely employed Jerred Smithson to shadow Ovechkin on the penalty kill.

During his two-season slide, the Capitals used Ovechkin at the point on the power play. He operated in the same manner as your typical defenceman would—firing pucks from high in the zone and working to space along the left wing. The problem was the predictability and lack of movement resulted in plenty of clean looks for goaltenders, and Ovechkin shot only eight percent with the man advantage.

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Since the 2012 lockout, the Capitals have run the power play off the right point and have had Ovechkin shade to the area above the left faceoff dot. The power play then uses Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green to manipulate the box and open a clear lane. When the lane opens up, they slide Ovechkin one-time opportunities.

The heat map clearly indicates where the Capitals are employing Ovechkin and the reason why Carlyle didn’t cover him in a conventional manner. When we consider that Ovechkin is scoring on 40 percent of his transition opportunities, 26 extra opportunities per 100 shots works out to 10 more goals.

When we compare this to the findings in regards to goaltending and how important goaltender movement is to offensive success, it is easy to see why Ovechkin has returned to NHL superstardom. He has been taking three times more shots with the goaltender in transition and has been converting at a sustainable rate for somebody of his ability. The question becomes what happens to these opportunities if other coaches use Carlyle’s approach and whether the Capitals can counter it with a secondary setup to offset teams over-playing the Great 8.

Definitely something to keep an eye on should his production begin to normalize.

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