February 15, 2011
Statistically, shift length is not Alex Ovechkin's(notes) problem. With 56 points in 57 games, saying he has a "problem" at all seems a little ridiculous, but compared to the rest of his career, it's not that unfair.
Something is just ... off.
After watching him slog through over 25 minutes of ice time in Phoenix last night, I figured he was just on the ice way, way too much. And, his TOI (time-on-ice) is insanely high - fifth among forwards in the league - but compared to the rest of his illustrious career, those numbers are paltry. He's averaged 21:45 per game this year, his lowest total since 2006-2007. Even his average shift length is 1:01, low for him.
This leads me to believe that he`s simply "out of shape," which is in quotations because he's in better shape than everyone reading this article, but not better than himself in previous seasons. It doesn't mean he's eating bags of potato chips and skipping workouts, it means that the fitness bar in professional sports is insanely high, and if you don't keep up, struggles inevitably ensue.
For most players, the average shift should be between 40-55 seconds. Once you're over the minute mark, there`s no denying that your legs have been on train tracks way too often during your shift, assuming you haven't been hemmed in your own zone the whole time.
The fact is, if you're tuckered 20 seconds after stepping on the ice, your cardio simply isn't up to snuff. The expectation in our game is that shifts are short because they're essentially sprints. Those of us who play rec league know that, yes, it is possible to coast around out there for six straight minutes; but it's probably not the most effective game plan when you have more than one or two extra bodies on your bench.
And that's how I feel Ovechkin has looked this year -- great in bursts, but unable to sustain any lasting pressure.
He plays a power game. He skates hard, he hits hard, he shoots hard. None of those things are easy to do when you're a little gassed, and it doesn't help that your thinking tends to falter in that state as well.
You don't suddenly become less talented at Ovechkin's age, and it's not like other teams are just starting to adjust to his style of play. He's been able to overcome defensive attention year after year, still being voted as the League's best player by his peers on numerous occasions.
With the emergence of Washington Capitals teammates Nicklas Backstrom(notes) and Alexander Semin(notes) as legitimate NHL stars, Ovie should be having a Michael-Jordan-in-his-prime type of year. No longer can teams blanket him with coverage, given that his two teammates might be equally dangerous if given the chance to have a clean look at the net. And with those two on the powerplay with him, dude should be taking freebie second assists to the bank every night.
I understand the Capitals have shifted to playing a slightly more defensive style -- I believe someone on twitter called them the Washington Trapitals -- which they hope provides them with a better shot come playoffs in a couple months. But the switch in systems wouldn't limit Ovechkin nearly as much as people think. Nothing changes on the offensive side of the puck when you clog the neutral zone, and you end up with puck possession even more when you play that way.
Which brings us back to conditioning. Figure:
• He had a long off-season this year, which gave him plenty of time to embrace his celebrity status, hang out with the lady-types (GQ!) and eat his share of barley-hops sandwiches. I'm not hating on the guy for this in the slightest bit - in fact, more power to him - but some summers, for whatever reason, your training just isn't your top priority.
• Puck Daddy's own Dmitry Chesnokov hinted at that in a tweet yesterday -- "Ovy hasn't worked with his personal coach, Kapitonov, for a year. Don't know what happened there."
I don't either, but I know it's not good.
It's not like his season is a complete write-off (his numbers are good enough for 11th in the league), he just doesn't quite look like himself right now. I've heard people say he's "saving himself for playoffs," but that's nonsense too. Like there's a puck he could win a footrace to in February, but he's like, "Naw, think about April, Alex! Let him have it."
All I know is, Capitals fans should whole-heartedly embrace the "he's in slightly worse shape" theory, because the alternative is petrifying:
My hunch is he just needs a couple more bike rides so we can see more of the flashes of greatness we still see at the start of shifts for the duration of his TOI. Good cardio is essential to the success of a forward, and if the Caps are truly focused on playoffs this year, it might be time to for someone to suggest he tend to that.