Why Hockey Needs Alexander Ovechkin to Lift the Cup
The book on Alex Ovechkin is that he struggles in the playoffs. But the numbers don't bear that out. Can this be the year for hockey's leas appreciated superstar?
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Good news for the NHL's public image: Patrick Kane already is out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and Alexander Ovechkin is still here.
The less said about Kane—and whatever havoc he may wreak on upstate New York this summer—the better. But Ovechkin? He's worth talking about. In fact, if the league is lucky, the Washington Capitals forward and once-in-a-generation talent forward will be holding up the Cup this June.
Don't get me wrong: Ovechkin's current foes from Pittsburgh, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, are also solid enough human beings who are pretty good at hockey. Indeed, Ovechkin and Crosby—it's always written with Sid's name first, so I apologize for the disorienting shift in narrative—have been the consensus best players on the planet since each was selected with the first pick of the NHL's entry draft in 2004 and 2005, respectively. However, decidedly more adoration has been lobbed Sid's way. Perhaps that's because he has something Alex does not: a championship.
Should that finally change—and this year, it really could change—the NHL will be better off. Because Ovechkin, contrary to some pockets of ill-informed hockey sentiment, is a terrific and deserving face for the sport.
Start with Ovi's image. The worst thing Ovechkin's ever been accused of is celebrating his goals too vigorously. During a "Coach's Corner" segment on Hockey Night in Canada in 2009, resident Canadian hockey clown Don Cherry said that Ovechkin's celebrations remind him of a soccer player's—the worst possible thing, according to Cherry—and that he thought, "There's somebody out there—some big defenceman is going to be sitting in the weeds. As he cuts across centre ice, somebody's going to cut him in half."
Don Cherry is old; Don Cherry wears bad suits; the game has passed Don Cherry by. Old-time hockey is a fucking myth perpetuated by a bunch of hard-nosed Canadian pundits and Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers fans. No Canadian teams made the playoffs, the Bruins suck, and the Flyers were bounced in the first round by, you guessed it, Ovechkin's speedy Capitals.
Unwrapping the anti-Ovi sentiment is nettlesome business, because all he's ever done since entering the league in 2005-06 is inject it with excitement. From the jump, Ovechkin has been torching the NHL record books. His was the best ever rookie season by a Russian and by a left winger (Russians are pretty good at hockey, and the league has boasted some pretty phenomenal left wingers), and he's the only player in league history to be named a first-team all-star in each of his first five seasons. He's the first player to win the Art Ross Trophy, the Maurice Richard Trophy, the Lester B. Pearson Award, and the Hart Memorial Trophy, and the only player to do so in the same season. He's potted goals at a hellacious pace: .626 per game over the course of his career, good for fifth all-time.
The four players ahead of Ovechkin, in order, include Mike Bossy, Cy Denneny, Mario Lemieux, and Babe Dye; Denneny and Dye don't count because they played in the 1920s when goalies wore fucking ties, and Bossy and Lemieux have an advantage because each played the bulk of their careers in an era when goalies didn't save a lot of pucks. (Honestly, goaltending in the late 1970s and the 1980s was atrocious.) The only contemporary who can sniff Ovechkin's goal scoring jock is Steven Stamkos, and he scores at clip that, while still impressive, is nearly 10 percentage points behind (.548 goals per game, to be exact). And yet, somehow, Ovi still gets a bad rap.
The only thing that might justify the Ovi hate is his perceived string of poor performances in the Stanley Cup playoffs. About that: if you juxtapose Ovechkin's Corsi for percentage in all situations—for the uninitiated, this is a fancy metric that measures a team's puck possession percentage for all situations a given skater is on the ice, and one of the more important stats hockey wonks use to determine how good a player is (a good percentage is anything over 50)—in the regular season with the post-season, his playoff percentage is actually better than his regular season percentage (54.9 vs. 54). Couple that with the fact that, as of the publication of this piece, Ovechkin has registered 78 points in 81 career playoff games, and it's kind of difficult to say that he's performed poorly in the playoffs.
Of course, sample size factors in here. His playoff career equates to essentially one full season of NHL play. Ovi's been in the playoffs for eight of the past nine seasons, though—he's performed consistently and exceptionally over the course of an entire decade. That's not a fluke.
What about the dearth of cups? Well, winning the Stanley Cup is hard! Fuck, making the Stanley Cup Playoffs is hard. The Capitals are one of only five franchises in the league who've qualified for the playoffs on eight or more occasions since 2007-08. (I've excluded Ovechkin's first two seasons here because who can expect a team to make the post-season when the next best players on the roster are Dainus Zubrus and Alexander Semin?) Ovechkin's Caps haven't won the cup, but they're always in the mix. They're always giving the people of D.C. something to cheer about. That's more than Toronto fans can say.
Until this year, Ovechkin simply hasn't had a good enough team around him to win a championship. More specifically, he hasn't had a good enough defensive unit. (Since Braden Holtby—for my money the best goalie on the planet right now—entered the mix, the Capitals have had the goaltending, but goaltending alone, despite what old-time hockey types might have you believe, rarely wins cups. Goaltending can steal a game or a series—see Tim Thomas's performance in the 2010-11 Eastern Conference Finals as evidence—but it's rarely the sole reason a team wins a championship.) When your best defenseman is Mike Green—a glorified winger and a defensive zone liability, a bad look for a defenseman—you're probably not going to win a Stanley Cup.
Listen, you don't see anyone trashing any New York Rangers for their playoff failures. That's probably a symptom of the fact that aside from Henrik Lundqvist, they don't have any superstars—sorry, Rick Nash—and we've already determined that goalies can't really deliver cups on their own.
Name one player who, when he's controlling the puck in the offensive zone, strikes more fear in the hearts of the fans of opposing teams than Ovi. There is none. Not P.K. Subban as he dances gracefully along the blue line on the power play. Not Crosby when he's got the puck in Gretzky's office. Not Stamkos when he's slapping his stick against the ice in anticipation of a pass to his (and Ovechkin's) preferred left dot.
Call it Don Cherry Syndrome, call it perceived playoff incompetence, call it wild and unabashed Russophobia. Whatever it is, North America has to stop throwing shade Ovechkin's way and get behind his brilliance. No one likes a superstar whose career ends without the hardware to prove he was a superstar, and Ovechkin doesn't deserve that fate. Him winning a cup is the best thing that could happen for the NHL—and all of hockey for that matter—right now.