Not sure if you’ve heard this tasty little tidbit yet or not, but Alex Ovechkin is minus-4,000 in his 2013-14 NHL campaign. I mean, if you’re rounding. He’s actually minus-36, which is a few worse than the likes of Nail Yakupov (-33), Alex Edler (same) and Steve Ott (-31). Winning the “green jacket” for being the farthest “below par” during a hockey season requires a combination of being on a bad team, playing a good amount of minutes, and usually not being great defensively.
But it’s Alex Ovechkin, so this has been a big thing. He’s going to lead the league in goals, and (might) finish last in plus-minus. That’s a pretty special accomplishment. Also, he’s Russian, so that whole stereotype gets the Mario-finding-a-mushroom bump in some eyes.
The problem is, his coach just made the spotlight on him stronger, which he probably didn’t enjoy. Adam Oates had this to say about Ovi’s defensive effort on the Stars' fourth goal during a completely embarrassing 5-0 loss at home in the midst of a playoff race. From Katie Carrera of The Washington Post:
“Ovi quit on the play coming back,” Coach Adam Oates said. Whitney “forced [the play] down the ice and just goes to show you you’ve got to hustle the entire time, the whole entire time.”
Carrera corrected herself that it was Dustin Jeffrey that beat Ovi down the ice on the play.
Here’s the play in question:
As a winger – as any forward, actually – you don’t really have to get back to the zone as fast humanly possible when your team has “numbers” (enough people to cover those on the rush). What you do have to do, is shoulder check, and make sure your desire to be lazy and save your energy so you can use it offensively doesn’t leave your team in a bad situation. As in, if it’s a 3-on-3 headed back towards your own goal, you need to at the very least stay a step ahead of whoever their fourth guy is. Usually it’s a d-man who won’t try to press by you, but you do need to be sure. (Your coach will say you need to get back ASAP, but you’re usually fine dawdling.)
In this case, the Stars are on a 2-on-3. When Jay Beagle shoulders checks to see who’s coming…
…his teammate Ovechkin easily has body position on the next guy, so he’s free to provide some extra pressure on the puck carrier.
In this instance, Adam Oates was right. Ovi played some poor, sauntering defense and wasn't playing like the captain of a team getting embarrassed that shift. You should expect better.
But plays like that are only a part of why Ovechkin’s plus-minus is so bad.
Here’s a tweet from Tyler Dellow last night that paints a bit of a picture:
To simplify, since 2007 no person has played with players who’ve had a combined lower shooting percentage while they’re on the ice. Since shooting percentage is partially luck, we can understand that if the guys he’s been playing with had anything but the worst luck, Ovechkin's plus-minus (and probably assist column) would look a lot shinier. And, the guy could use some of that shine – he’s hasn’t had an even strength point since February 27th.
Personal stats aside, it strikes me that a coach in this situation should be sticking up for his leader, his face of the team, and the face of the franchise. You’d expect for him to do the opposite of highlighting his shortcomings. Instead, it comes off as Adam Oates looking out for his own hide after the Capitals failed in a major way in a big game, and appear to be losing their grip on what didn’t need to be a lost season.
My favorite team blog Russian Machine Never Breaks went comprehensive on the reasons Oates should be fired here. There are 20 mostly-reasonable points. The counter-argument basically equates to Oates looking good in a suit.
Not to make assumptions, but highlighting Ovi’s backchecking misstep here really does feel like a coach who knows his team has under-performed expectations fighting to keep his job and have another crack as the bench boss for an NHL team.
In the end, Ovi messed up. His plus-minus looks worse than it is because he doesn’t play with anyone who can score (his linemates have been atrocious lately). Adam Oates is probably defensive and looking for outs as the season slips away.
Nothing is going right in Washington, and if they miss the playoffs, as they most certainly will, somebody’s head is gonna roll. It’s going to be interesting to see if the Caps want to make it Ovechkin’s, Oates’, or GM George McPhee’s.