Behind Alex Ovechkin’s goal scoring struggles: Is he in decline?

Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin scores his 550th NHL goal surpassing Ron Francis for 27th on the all-time goal scoring list.

When we’re looking at a player who is on pace for 33 goals in an 82-game season in the modern NHL, we’re generally not asking what is wrong with them.

Alex Ovechkin isn’t most players.

Arguably the greatest goal scorer of all-time when adjusted for the era he plays in, Ovechkin is on pace for his worst goal scoring year since 2010-11 under Dale Hunter, and will fail to hit the 50-goal mark for just the fourth time in his 11 full NHL seasons.

The last time this happened, there was a lot of talk about Ovechkin being in decline. His answer to that was four seasons where he averaged 53 goals per 82 games — easily the NHL’s best mark — in four of the lowest scoring seasons in the game’s history.

Now though, things are a bit different. Ovechkin is 31 instead of 27, and players do tend to begin declining in their early-30s. So the question is how much has Ovechkin’s game changed from last season, when he scored 50 in 79 games? Let’s look at even strength and the power play.

Ovechkin’s goal scoring rate per minute at even strength and on the power play has dropped considerably, with each at just over 61 per cent of what he was producing last season.

It’s undeniable that based on his shot volume and scoring chance volume, some drop should be expected from Ovechkin. He simply isn’t shooting at the same rate, but a nearly 39 per cent drop seems extreme. But while his shot rate has dropped, the percentage of his shots that are scoring chances has actually increased. This means that although his shooting percentage has fallen from 12.6 per cent last season and 12.3 per cent in his career to 10.7 per cent this season, logically it should have risen slightly, to around about the 13.4 per cent rate he had in 2014-15. So we can say that Ovechkin has been fairly unlucky in his shooting this season, but even if we raise his shooting percentage to that mark from two seasons ago, his pace would rise from 33 goals to just under 41. That’s a significant improvement, but you can clearly see the impact of the fall in his shot volume.

It’s important to note that Ovechkin has seen his shot volume fall before and he recovered from it to maintain his status as the league’s greatest goal scorer. I think that when it comes to Ovechkin, he has more than earned the benefit of the doubt that he can reinvent himself and find ways to be the best again, but time waits for no man.

When you take the long view of Ovechkin’s career, there is a clear trajectory when it comes to his shooting.

Over the past nine seasons, there has been a slow, but mostly steady decline in Ovechkin’s shot numbers. He’s still the king of shot volume overall and that linear trend line of decline could easily level off if he were to have a dominant season next year. But the evidence of decline is there.

Still, as I mentioned, there was a steep drop from his peak years in the mid-2000s to the end of the Dale Hunter era, which he reversed for four seasons. I don’t believe it’s as simple as Ovechkin’s performance dropping into the proverbial elevator shaft any time soon.

It’s possible that Ovechkin has had his last 50-goal season already, but given his history, I wouldn’t bet against him getting there again, even if he’s more likely to end up in the 40s from now on.


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