What Happened to Alex Ovechkin’s Assists?

Posted March 29, 2016

(Caps Outsider)

In the first six years of his NHL career, Alex Ovechkin wasn’t just scoring goals, but dishing out passes that turned ordinary players into goal-scorers. But in four of the last five seasons, his assists totals have plummeted nearly 50%. Aside from a resurgence in the lockout-shorted season of 2012-13, Ovechkin’s drop in assists is odd considering he’s maintained his league-leading shot and goal totals.

So, a drop from a career high of 59 (in 72 games) to a career low of 21 this season (with 7 games remaining) is something to wonder about. In fact, between Dec. 20 and Feb. 20 this season, a span of 23 games,  Ovechkin registered 21 goals, and one assist. I’m curious if any other player in history was so prolific in goals but virtually invisible in assists during such a stretch.

Screen Shot 2016-03-28 at 8.08.56 PM

*2012-13 adjusted for 82 games

Here are my theories for his drop in assists:

1 He’s playing differently than he used to

It’s possible that, as he’s gotten older and lost some of his youthful energy, he’s trying harder than ever to score goals, slapping the puck at bad angles toward the net, or at defensemen’s shin pads, instead of dishing it off. Now, I don’t want to get all Mike Milbury here, nitpicking over everything he’s doing wrong on every shift, but it certainly feels that Ovechkin is rarely looking to set someone up for a prime scoring opportunity these days. That’s just my observation. (Note: This is totally my weakest argument.)

UPDATE: Japers Rink pointed out that Ovechkin only has two primary assists on 5-on-5 goals this season:

2 Coaching

The coaches, more than ever, are playing him to his strengths. This is especially true on the power play, where he’s still scoring goals but his assist totals have plummeted. Even his assists on the power play aren’t exactly passes, per se, but missed shots that wind up on Nicklas Backstrom‘s stick, who then passes to someone else who then scores. Take a look at Ovechkin’s power play assists over the years:

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*2012-13 adjusted for 82 games

His power play assist numbers have likely fallen because the coaches just want him to shoot. If true, that’s fine, as far as I’m concerned, so long as it doesn’t make the team struggle overall.

3 Linemates not scoring as much

In 2013-14, Ovechkin scored 51 goals, but his -35 plus/minus that year was horrible. Caps bloggers absolved him by citing poor shooting percentages by linemates, poor goaltending, and Hershey defenders. While all valid points, the Caps scored about the same number of goals, and gave up far more (66 and 46), in Ovechkin’s first two seasons than in 2013-14. Despite that, he still fared better in the plus/minus department when the Caps, overall, were far worse defensively.

His higher number of assists those years likely played a role in boosting his plus/minus on otherwise lousier defensive teams. Who was he passing to back then? Dainius ZubrusBrian WillsieJamie Heward, and a handful of other players the Capitals ultimately got rid of before they started making the playoffs. Those players, however, weren’t any better than those in the lineup for the Caps in the last several seasons. But they were scoring off his passes more often (of course, back then, they didn’t have Backstrom).

4 Alex Semin and Mike Green

Not having Semin (or a Semin-type scorer) on the team is a reason Ovechkin’s assists have dropped. While Backstrom is obviously on top of the list for goals assisted by Ovechkin (73 and counting), Semin is still in second place, with 45 in six seasons together, despite not having played with him since 2011-12. Third? Mike Green, with 38. Once those guys were gone (or in Green’s case, stopped leading all NHL defensemen in scoring), no other player in an equivalent position scored even close to the same number of goals.

5 Marcus Johansson

Other than Backstrom, no other forward has played with Ovechkin more than Marcus Johansson. So, how many goals by Johansson have been assisted by Ovechkin, including secondary assists? The answer is 17 since 2011, 8 of which were on the power play. Considering how much Ovechkin and Johansson played together during that span, it’s incredible that number wasn’t far higher. Mike Knuble played with Ovechkin three seasons and scored 24 goals off of his passes, so clearly a gritty net presence to knock in Ovechkin’s rebounds boosted Ovi’s assist totals. Johansson rarely scores goals like that.

6 Nicklas Backstrom

For two seasons, Backstrom had a better goal-scoring touch than he did in the following seasons. In his second and third years, he had 22, and then 33 goals. Since then, pick a number less than 20 (up until this season).

As for Ovi-to-Backstrom assists (remember 2012-13 was a shorter season):

Screen Shot 2016-03-27 at 11.07.40 PM

So, comparing the very best-to-worst seasons, Ovechkin had 13 more assists to Backstrom in 2009-10 than he has so far this season.

There is likely more too it, especially this season when T.J. Oshie served as a major upgrade on the top line wing. I’m sure if we were to watch the tape and crunch more numbers, other theories would become apparent. What’s more important for the Capitals, however, is that they are winning more than ever and Ovechkin himself is still one of the top players in the league. And that’s just fine.

Number of goals scored off of Ovechkin assists, as of 3/29/2016

Rank Player Ovi Assists
1 Nicklas Backstrom 73
2 Alex Semin 45
3 Mike Green 38
4 Dainius Zubrus 31
5 Brooks Laich 27
6 Mike Knuble 24
7 Chris Clark 17
8 Marcus Johansson 17
9 Viktor Kozlov 12
10 Troy Brouwer 11