How Leon Draisaitl compares to Alex Ovechkin as a goal scorer

Watch as John Carlson makes a nice pass to Alex Ovechkin who buries the puck into the net.

With the Edmonton Oilers and Washington Capitals facing off Thursday, last season’s only two 50-goal scorers will be going head-to-head for the first time in the 2019-20 season.

Alex Ovechkin, 11 years Leon Draisaitl‘s senior, continues to show he won’t be giving up the title of the sport’s best goal scorer any time soon, but the 23-year-old from Cologne, Germany is coming off a 105-point season and remains in the excellent role of riding shotgun with Connor McDavid.

A lot of folks use his cushy position next to McDavid as a reason to knock on Draisaitl, but even when they’re apart Draisaitl is a very strong player who creates a lot of offence and transitions the puck better than 90 per cent or more of the league.

While they share some goal scoring prowess and big frames, Draisaitl and Ovechkin play the game very differently, as you might expect any time you compare players who are more than a decade apart in age. Ovechkin still has that youthful exuberance, but he conserves energy by not carrying the puck as much, as opposed to Draisaitl, who loves ripping through the neutral zone.

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With the start the Oilers are off to this season, is it possible that Draisaitl could outscore Ovechkin? On the face of it, Draisaitl finished only one back of Ovechkin last season and the Russian is 34 now, whereas Draisaitl is squarely in his prime. However, since the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, Ovechkin has been displaced as the league’s top goal scorer only once in seven seasons, more due to him having a bad season than someone else having a great one.

Players do fall off as they get older, but Ovechkin keeps finding ways to extend his best years, so count him out at your own peril.

With that said, Draisaitl is a rising talent on a team that heavily depends on him and he gets to play with the best player in the world, so he’s in a good spot to be the guy who finally dethrones the Russian Machine. So far this season Ovechkin is right back where you expect with seven goals in his first 11 games, while Draisaitl has six in his first 10.

That paces both of them for around what they scored last season, but is Draisaitl capable of putting up the shot volume and quality that Ovechkin does to score that consistently? Let’s look at 5-on-5 data to figure this out. First, let’s look at all of Ovechkin’s shot attempts at 5-on-5 from last season and this season by volume and area of the ice in a heat map.

Looking at Ovechkin’s shot attempts — the so-called ‘Ovi spot’ is apparent at the top of the left circle, but the highest density of his shots actually comes from much closer to the net, in the direct centre of the inner slot where expected shooting percentage is all the way up at 21 per cent.

This is a relatively new thing for Ovechkin. He has spent most of his career sticking to the high slot for a vast majority of his shots, but after one down season back in 2016-17 (when he still scored 33 goals) he started pushing himself to get deeper in the offensive zone and attacking more off the rush, using his skating as an advantage to get better quality looks.

Ovechkin’s shot locations are a mix of playing to his strengths and him being smart enough to find the best spots to shoot from as the league has changed over time. So what does Draisaitl’s heat map look like?

Right away you can see Draisaitl’s overall shot volume is significantly lower than Ovechkin’s. The shot density numbers were higher for Ovechkin if you look at the legends on the right side.

What you can also see from the heat map is that Draisaitl’s shots are much more focused to inside the slot than Ovechkin’s, and he also likes to shoot from the Ovi spot.

Draisaitl isn’t shy about getting to the net — in fact he drives deeper than Ovechkin and gets lots of shots from the lip of the crease or even inside it. That’s likely a big reason why he scored on 21.6 per cent of his shots on goal last year, which isn’t a sustainable number but may not be as far off of his expected rate as many believe.

What may hurt Draisaitl’s chances to keep pace with or surpass Ovechkin is that the Oilers have shifted to a low event style of play, cutting down on chances against but also chances for. Relying on Draisaitl and McDavid to break through on relatively few chances isn’t a bad strategy for a top-heavy team, but while Ovechkin ranks third in the league in scoring chances per 20 minutes at 5-on-5 with 4.5, Draisaitl ranks 182nd with 2.05.

Nearly half of Draisaitl’s chances come off the rush and most of the rest are preceded by a pass, so the quality he gets is astonishingly high, but to hit 50 goals you need volume. The incredible amount of ice time the Oilers’ top players are getting does make the overall numbers look better than the rate stats. Draisaitl is 50th in the NHL in scoring chances, but by that measure Ovechkin is first and the gap between the two is large, with 37 for Ovechkin and 17 for Draisaitl.

I have a lot of belief in Draisaitl as a top-level point producer and transition-driving forward, but this season so far doesn’t look like the one where he’ll come at the king.

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