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Statistical analysis: When less Ovechkin is more

Statistical analysis

You want your best player on the ice, but you also want your best player at his best when he is on the ice. That's why the long shifts Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin has been taking lately are perplexing. Sure, "Ovi's got to create the space for Ovi," but if he is on the ice for more than a minute per shift, bad things start to happen.

Thursday night's loss in Boston provides some recent examples. Ovechkin's first shift of the second period was for 1:52, ending with a goal against. Another second-period shift found Ovechkin on the ice for 2:54 (second longest of the night) which ended in a hooking penalty by Alexander Semin. Finally, a marathon 3:49 shift came at the tail end of the third period to end in, of all things, a penalty for too many men on the ice.

Keep the Great 8's shifts to one minute in duration and get a superstar who averages a goal and assist per game. Once Coach Bruce Boudreau pushes the envelope, not only does Ovechkin's personal production take a hit, but the Caps' win percentage starts to nosedive as well:

Ovechkin's TOI per game Ovechkin's avg. pts. per game Ovechkin' avg. plus/minus Caps' win % Ovechkin's avg. TOI per shift (secs.)
<18 1.3 1.3 0.750 56
18-21 2.0 1.0 0.933 62
21-24 1.4 0.1 0.616 65
24-27 1.3 0.2 0.435 70
>27 1.1 0.1 0.429 76
(Data from games since Boudreau took over as coach in Nov. 2007)

Maybe it's a lack of confidence in the Caps' secondary scoring, maybe it's poor shift management, but there is no denying that the longer Ovechkin is on the ice per shift, the worse things get for the Caps.

Neil Greenberg also writes for Russian Machine Never Breaks. You can follow him on Twitter here.

By Neil Greenberg  | October 22, 2010; 4:01 PM ET
Categories:  Alex Ovechkin, Statistical analysis  
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You aren't accounting for the fact that one of the reasons Ovi's TOI is really high in losses is that...WE'RE LOSING.

And the biggest reasons his TOI is low in wins is that...WE'RE WINNING.

Ovi will deliver over the long haul. Ovi will play a lot of minutes. If we got consistent production from people other than Backstom and Semin, it would be different.

Posted by: TCJR2000 | October 22, 2010 4:10 PM | Report abuse

It was obvious last night Ovi was overused. I posted last year my biggest gripe with BB was running his stallions into the ground while a stable full of ponies sat by and watched. It's no different with a catcher in baseball (max say 130 games/year) or starting pitcher (110 pitches, whatever). When you exceed the optimum production time limit, the results go straight downhill. Ovechkin looked exhausted and useless at the end last night. The coach needs to start the game with a time plan for each player and somehow try and make it work, best he can, understanding that there are always exceptions, but that exceptions should be exceptions and not the norm.

Posted by: tominsocal1 | October 22, 2010 4:19 PM | Report abuse

the stick checkers last night were driving me crazy....i know criticizing poti is heresy but really now, can we not put a body on anybody?

Posted by: ovckn8 | October 22, 2010 4:33 PM | Report abuse

Ovi will deliver over the long haul. Ovi will play a lot of minutes. If we got consistent production from people other than Backstom and Semin, it would be different.

And teams will take advantage of those long shifts, monkey see monkey do.

the first shift of the second period last night was inexcusable... if Ovi keeps doing that, he'll have BB fired. GUARANTEED!!!

Posted by: joek443 | October 22, 2010 4:36 PM | Report abuse

there will probably be a bunch of skepticism, cynism, etc, but I find this to be a very insightful and timely piece of analysis. Well done Neil. Many thanks.

cause-and -effect can't be proven here but it is thought provoking. Yes, the longer shifts probably reflect games where the Caps were already losing and trying to catch up. but the logical follow-up question is: is playing Ovi for 2+ minute shifts the best way to catch-up?

Posted by: PSD1 | October 22, 2010 4:41 PM | Report abuse

When Ovi is used a ton it's often because the team is losing, not the other way around.

When the team is down and Ovi is tired and playing big minutes, that's when we tend to see him over-pursuing and trying to do it all himself in a very ineffective way

But I recall we also saw BB play him when the team was up comfortably in games late last season when the Caps already had a playoff berth in-hand - pushing his minutes up past 20 as well. This while we all were saying during the game that he needed to be safely off the ice.

Posted by: austinsteve | October 22, 2010 4:42 PM | Report abuse

>>the stick checkers last night were driving me crazy....i know criticizing Poti is heresy but really now, can we not put a body on anybody?

No. :) Now dig up the previous 20,000 comments (me included) going into 2 seasons ago begging the Caps to sign a crease-clearing, shut down defenseman. I used to decry GMGM only signing "puck mover" D-men, but now they're claiming that without Green in the lineup, they don't have D-men who can move the puck. So much for my theory. :p

Posted by: blackjack65 | October 22, 2010 5:08 PM | Report abuse

Yup, as some have stated here, Ovi playing alot means, the Caps are losing. So if the Caps are losing, its a good bet, the Caps havent scored as many goals as they usually do.

Posted by: theAnswerIs42 | October 22, 2010 5:10 PM | Report abuse

Note that total TOI and shift length are in lockstep. If Ovie is playing less minutes, it's usually because BB is rolling 4 lines equally, which is usually because the Caps are winning.

If the Caps are losing, BB puts Ovie on the ice constantly in an attempt to catch up. I'd attribute the stats to that more than vice versa.

Posted by: Langway4Eva | October 22, 2010 5:16 PM | Report abuse

I believe some of you are incorrect in your logic. Last year Ovi led the league in minutes per shift while Caps won PT. Caps in fact were tied or ahead probably 75% of the time last year.

Now his shift minutes are similar while they've been behind a higher percentage, so it isn't the losing alone driving the minutes.

The writer here has done a good job of drawing a conclusion that can't for certain be calimed since, as you've pointed out, there's the Catch-22 of extra-long shifts when losing. But, forget that for a moment, and just go by what you saw with your own two eyes, and he looked awful last night at the end of the power plays and at the end of the game.

The general manager should tell the coach, if the coach won't do it on his own, to limit Ovi to 24 shifts max and 21 mins max.

The Caps didn't lose because of Ovi shifts but, as a result of the extended ice time, any chance to catch up was reduced.

In most sports, when team is losing, coach tries different people. BB apparently has a different philosophy that when you are losing you just keep using the same people who apparently got you in the losing situation in the first place.

However you spin it, it's bad.

Posted by: tominsocal1 | October 22, 2010 5:21 PM | Report abuse

When the team is losing, I'd rather see Ovie on the ice for 45-55 seconds and be fired up than out there for 90+ seconds and tiring out.

Posted by: cfatwood | October 22, 2010 5:25 PM | Report abuse

Ovi always takes long shifts whether they're winning or losing. BB has been talking about that for years but somehow he has yet to do anything about it.

so if games like last night's keep happening and they end up costing him his job, BB has nobody else to blame but himself for not keeping a short leash on Ovi and his shifts.

Posted by: joek443 | October 22, 2010 5:26 PM | Report abuse

Boudreau either will not or cannot coach his "superstars." He tries too hard to be one of the boys and won't truly hold them accountable for screwing up by sitting superstars when they deserve it.

Posted by: doughless | October 22, 2010 5:26 PM | Report abuse

Is there a possible connection between regular season minutes played by Ovechkin and Green adding up to early playoff exits?
Remember football player Earl Campbell for the old Houston Oilers? Coach Bum Phillips would send that guy pile driving into the line play after play time after time, until his career was dead. Sometimes I wonder if the same isn't being done in a hockey way to Ovechkin. BB has the best player in the world but may be shortening his career...

Posted by: kcbrichmond | October 22, 2010 5:28 PM | Report abuse

Oh, yes, another statistical abnormality that skews the data:

The more power plays the Caps get, the more two minute shifts he gets.

This item has nothing, necessarily, to do with the winning or losing.

Caps get 6 power plays, there's a good bet he gets at least six shifts of 90 seconds or more.

Naturally, to further complicate it, when Caps go 0-fer on PP he's out there the whole two minutes of each one (if they score in 30 seconds his shift would end there).

There is no way to statistically draw a firm conclusion from the data like you can do with the more someone drinks, the more likely to be in an accident. However, we can use common sense (remember that?), which tells us that a tired person performs worse than a rested person.

Posted by: tominsocal1 | October 22, 2010 5:29 PM | Report abuse


Good comments!

Like you, I think that Ovi's long shifts are counter productive after a point. While Ovi is a great player and has great endurance, his productivity reaches diminishing returns after a point. While he can do an occasional long shift, he can't do 2 minute plus shifts night after night on power play after power play.

It's vicious circle. The team's losing so Ovi gets more ice time and so it goes.

Diminishing returns -- well I learned something in Economics class after all.

Posted by: CapsFan75 | October 22, 2010 5:35 PM | Report abuse

the problem with this analysis is that is assumes a causal relation between OV's long shifts and a game's outcome

correlation is not the same thing as causation. ice cream sales and crime both go up in summer, but neither causes the other. they are both symptoms of another phenomenon. and, as a couple of posts have alluded, that is exactly what is happening here

we don't necessarily start to lose because OV is taking long shifts, as he is most likely taking long shifts because BB is already worried. in other words, long OV shifts are not something we want to see!

Posted by: mcintire_will | October 22, 2010 5:45 PM | Report abuse

mcintire: I disagree (to a point). Let's say Caps are up 1-0 five mins into the game. Other team then gets a double minor. Fair bet even with caps leading (c'mon, be honest, you know this is true) is that Ovi would be on the ice for about two mins, go off (assuming no scoring), then come back before second PP is over.

The only reason so many are bringing up the "when the Caps are losing" argument is because the Ovi ice time was absurd late in the games (due partly to Green being out) Tue and Thu.

Some of us have been harping on Ovi and Green ice time way back throughout last year. As I've said, BB fault is he always rides those two (and Poti sometimes, even when Poti is fresh back from groin injury). Green gets these streaks of 30 mins game that are either because caps are losing, game is tied or Caps are only up by 1 or 2 goals.

We also see Ovi on ice in the last minute when Caps are ahead, and that really makes no sense at all.

Posted by: tominsocal1 | October 22, 2010 5:59 PM | Report abuse

Ron Weber always used to say some of these guys would surprise you if given more ice time.

If they're gonna win the Cup, they're gonna win it as a TEAM. They're NOT gonna win it as a two-man team.

Giving these two guys heavy ice time is a tacit admission that they don't have a team good enough to win it all.

Posted by: joek443 | October 22, 2010 6:41 PM | Report abuse

OV is being greedy and illustrates why he is a horrible can the team be expected to follow systems etc. when he just does his own this....way tooooooo selfish!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Posted by: wendel2 | October 22, 2010 6:48 PM | Report abuse

Fehr and Johansson were probably 2 of the most effective forwards on the ice last night for the Caps and they each got around 13 minutes of ice time. That's simply not enough (esp when you're running Ovi into the ground with 25+ min shifts). Fehr last year was one of the most productive forwards in the entire NHL based on points per ice time... he needs to be out there more!

Posted by: chombie13 | October 22, 2010 8:29 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Super-Stats guy:
Have you ever read a book called "Freakonomics? The book offers alternate explanations for why certain outcomes take place.
Have you considered that the reason Ovie logs more minutes in losses is because the coach uses him more when the team is losing?
Just a thought that might not have crossed your mind.

Posted by: Wiley_One1 | October 22, 2010 9:31 PM | Report abuse

This may possibly be the best blog I have ever read on the WAPO. Not an opinion and nothing jaded or negative. hard cold facts backed up by numbers. When Ovechkin is on the ice more than a third of the game, his and the teams performance go down. It is information like this that have made coaches hall of famers over the years.

I agree at times there are or can be extenuating circimstances like if we have an unusual amount of PP he probably gets more time, or if we are losing the last 10 minutes he might get more time, but all in all the stats do not lie and the fact that they trend the same direction all the way down is telling.

Nobody is superman even when you are the best in th world. I think part of it also has to do with disrupting another line that may have some chemistry. It can't be good if those player suddenly think they have to feed OV just because he is on the ice.

Great article, keep up the investigating!

Posted by: dbrine1261 | October 23, 2010 11:20 AM | Report abuse

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