COLLEGE PARK, Maryland — Alex Ovechkin is quickly climbing the NHL’s all-time scoring lists, but a league-wide lack of power play opportunities may be hampering his ascent.
While the Washington Capitals’ star sniper is renowned for his scoring ability at even strength, Ovechkin is in a class of his own when it comes to power play goals. He has led the NHL in power play goals for four straight seasons and is one goal behind the Flyers’ Brayden Schenn for the league lead this year.
Though Ovechkin was already dynamic with a man-advantage when he broke into the league, he’s managed to improve over the last few years. Unfortunately for the Capitals, his uptick in power play efficiency comes at a time when Ovechkin and his peers get fewer power play opportunities.
The NHL’s average number of power play chances per game has been trending downward since Ovechkin’s rookie season in 2005-06. That year, NHL teams averaged 5.85 power plays per game. In the current 2016-17 season, teams now get 3.13 chances per game. The last three seasons have offered the three lowest power play-per-game averages in recorded NHL history, dating back to 1963-64.
Some of the decline in penalties can be attributed to the phasing out of fighting and enforcers. Some teams have even moved away from using the fourth-line as an aggressive group of penalty-prone grinders, choosing to employ more speedsters instead. Perhaps more importantly, players have gotten more conscious about avoiding penalties.
With a dwindling number of attempts at extra strength, Ovechkin needs to make the most of his opportunities. He has.
Two years ago, Ovechkin set a personal best with 25 power play goals. He accomplished that while spending just 3:49 minutes on the ice per game with a man advantage, one of the three lowest marks of his career. The man known as the “Russian machine” produced with brutal, robotic efficiency on the power play.
Ovechkin reached his prime between 2013 and 2016, averaging 7.1 points per 60 minutes on the power play. That was an increase of two points from the first eight years of his career.
Power play scarcity may be having a long-term impact on Ovechkin’s career.
In Ovechkin’s youth, power play goals weren’t as important to his personal totals because his combination of speed, mobility and energy allowed him to score seemingly at will. Many of his highlight-reel breakaway goals came during this stage of his career.
Now, power play goals account for a greater share of his total goals; even strength goals aren’t coming as often as they used to, while power play goals have stayed mostly the same. That’s bad news because teams are getting less and less time on the power play almost every year.
Ovechkin spent a greater percentage of game time on the power play in his rookie season. If that held constant throughout his career, he could have 160 more career points than he now does, a Capital News Service analysis found, (maintaining the same number of games played and his power play points per minute rate). That would be enough to bump him up from 80th on the all-time scoring list to 50th.
Circumstances have damaged Ovechkin’s career potential, possibly costing the Russian forward a considerable sum of points.
If the NHL’s lower level of penalties continues, Ovechkin’s ascent up some career record lists could be slowed. Ovechkin, owner of 206 career power play goals, recently passed Wayne Gretzky to move to 14th all-time on that list.
Former Buffalo Sabres left winger Dave Andreychuk is the leader with 274 power play goals, a mark that seems attainable if Ovechkin gets enough opportunities.
Gretzky’s record of 894 total goals seems unattainable, as the 31-year-old Ovechkin sits 27th all-time with 551 goals. But when his goal totals are revised for yearly league average scoring, Ovechkin is 13th all-time in adjusted goals with 643. He has room to move high up into the top 10.
Ovechkin will inevitably age, and as he does, he may become more of a power play specialist. If league power play rates don’t pick up, Ovechkin might miss out on the all-time power play goal record he seemed destined to break.