What’s behind Alex Ovechkin’s declining ice time

Alex Ovechkin talks about his ice time and the line chemistry with Kuznetsov and Burakovsky.

Throughout his career, Alex Ovechkin has been a big-minute guy for the Washington Capitals, averaging over 20 minutes a game. Obviously, you want your best players on the ice as much as possible, but at 31 years old and 12 years into his NHL career, Ovechkin is at a point where his body can’t bounce back as fast as it used to.

And as the Capitals chase that elusive first Stanley Cup with this great core, there’s been a concerted effort to manage the minutes of their biggest star so he’s fresh later in the season and into the playoffs.

“He is the type of personality that wants to play every second shift, ‘put me out there in every key situation.'” Capitals GM Brian MacLellan told Elliotte Friedman in an interview earlier this season. “He wants to be the guy in every situation. Part of taking back the minutes is our team, we want him to play quicker, we want him to play faster, we want our shifts to be shorter as what’s going on around in a lot of the league. And he’s gotta be a part of that too, so I think the coaching staff has encouraged him to play harder for shorter shift lengths and he’d be a more effective player.

“I think at times he gets it and he buys in and at other times he’s like ‘I want to play more.’ There’s certain games where he’s feeling good and things are coming his way and he’s getting lots of shots that he wants to be out (for) 20-plus minutes.”

Indeed, Ovechkin has seen his ice time drop fairly significantly so far this season. At 18:09 per game, his average is two minutes less than it generally has been through his career.

2012-13 20:53
2013-14 20:32
2014-15 20:19
2015-16 20:18
2016-17 18:09

“Yeah of course I want to play more ice time,” Ovechkin said in a pre-game interview before the Caps took on the Leafs Saturday night. “I have more opportunities to be on the ice. But I talk with (coach Barry Trotz) and we understand each other. It works right now, so I hope it’s going to work until the end.”

As Nick Kypreos noted, before Trotz arrived behind the bench, Washington’s winning percentage in games where Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom were held off the scoresheet was just .284. Since Trotz’s arrival, that percentage has popped all the way up to .559, a sign there is more depth — which shouldn’t be too surprising considering the emergence of Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky along with the arrivals of Justin Williams and T.J. Oshie. They can confidently roll all four lines. As far as depth goes, this Caps team appears better suited to make a run for the Cup than any before it.

So far this season, Ovechkin has seen fewer than 18 minutes in a game eight times — through the entire 2015-16 season he saw fewer than 18 minutes 11 times.


When it comes to measuring this Capitals team, all judgment will wait until April, May and, they hope, June.

“It’s been the No. 1 topic of conversation around the Washington Capitals and how they’re trying to conserve him for the playoffs,” Elliotte Friedman said on Saturday’s panel discussion. “Last night against Buffalo, a back-to-back he played 15:24. The game against Columbus the 14:12 (was) such a low number for him. That was on a Tuesday night. On the Wednesday, they played Pittsburgh and this is the goal that made it 6-0 (view video at the top of this post). As Kelly points out he looks exhausted, it is a 6-0 game, but people were saying that’s the most muted goal celebration from Alex Ovechkin that they’ve ever seen.

“And I think in the interview he’s trying to play good nature, but I think he’s saying ‘OK I’m going to buy in. But I want to make sure when the time really matters and we’ve gotta go through the Rangers and Penguins they’re going to call my number.”

No doubt they will. Ovechkin is still the lifeblood of this Capitals team.

And if it works and they come out on top as Stanley Cup champions in June, everyone will acknowledge the process worked.

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