Tuesday, December 27, 2011

What's Wrong With Ovechkin?

I realize that not everyone is as into hockey as I am, but something has to keep me interested in the wintertime. Football is over for me; the Bills are not going to make the playoffs (the starting quarterback in their last playoff game was Doug Flutie, for God's sake), and I am resolute about my commitment to forget about the team I wasted four decades of my life rooting for--and they're even worse than the Bills. Try as I might, I really don't care about the NBA, and while in ordinary circumstances I would be ecstatic about the Syracuse Orangemen being the top-ranked team in the country, 1) they haven't played anybody good yet, and 2) the entire Bernie Fine mess has cast a very long shadow, if not yet a pall, over this season. It's tough to get excited when you're half-afraid that the next day's news is going to bring revelations that will prove everyone a big fat liar, just like at Penn State. I'm not saying it's likely, but it is a fear that won't be totally disposed of until the civil suits are dispensed with, probably years down the road.
I have posted a few times about the Rangers, who are sitting atop the Eastern Conference standings this evening and sure as hell look like the real deal this year. But that's not what I am going to write about today. The Rangers are in the Winter Classic next week, and on Christmas Day, I watched a replay of last year's Classic between Washington and Pittsburgh. The game was hyped incessantly in the media last year as "Sid [Crosby] vs. Alex [Ovechkin]," who had been the two biggest stars in the game for a few years going into last season. Crosby remains a big star, but has not been on the ice much in the intervening year, as he suffered a concussion in last year's Classic and has only been able to play in a handful of games since. Ovechkin was going through a bit of an off-season a year ago going into the game, which was remarked upon but in a way that chalked it up to bad luck or something that was going to reverse.
Well, this year has been a lot worse. The Capitals have had a lot of talent over the past few years and have come up woefully short in the playoffs, and there were some questions heading into this season whether this was the year they could put the demons behind them. Now the question has become, "Are they going to make the playoffs?;" after a 7-0 start to the season., they have won only 10 of 27 games since and currently sit in 11th place in the conference (the top eight make the playoffs). And while inconsistent goaltending and a major injury to star defenseman Mike Green have hurt (Green is the best offensive defenseman in the league, and those guys are the rarest and most valuable animal in the game, fodder for another post sometime), the most obvious problem is that their alleged superstar, all-world player is stinking it up more nights than not. Ovechkin scored his twelfth--that's 12--goal of the season last night as the Capitals lost to another huge disappointment, Buffalo; among the other players in the league with 12 goals right now are Ray Whitney (who is 39 years old), Olie Jokinen (a player who has become the definition of "talented loser" in his years in the league), and Milan Lucic (who was suspended for a couple of games and who plays five minutes less per game than Ovechkin does).  This is a guy who scored 50 goals or more four times in his first five years in the league, and even last year he had 32. He is not getting old; he is 26, a year away from the age that players in all sports most often have their best season at. And a lot of people are starting to wonder if this is the new normal, if Ovie is going to be just another player now.
I suggested in this space last year that the downturn in Ovechkin's career might be because of an issue that there is no way of confirming. It is incontestable that 1) Ovechkin is Russian, 2) Russia is the most alcoholic nation on earth, and 3) there have been a number of high-profile Russian players who did not have the careers they should have, and in a few of them alcoholism turned out to be a huge factor. This is not proof or even a real strong clue that this is the problem with Ovechkin, I hasten to add; I only bring it up because he would not be the first player that this happened to; there have been others who had substance abuse issues whose production falloffs were fairly similar to what Ovechkin has endured the last two years--Kevin Stevens and Theo Fleury come to mind.
But still-- twelve goals? 
I am not suggesting that all Russians are drunks, and that every Russian player who has an off-season or sees his production dip has a drinking problem. But I decided to do something I used to do a lot--I decided to check out and see if my gut feeling had any merit. Ovechkin is not the only high-profile Russian-born player struggling recently; Ilya Kovalchuk has seen roughly the same career trajectory from a similar perch at the same time (although he is a few years older), and hugely talented but also hugely disappointing players Nikolai Filatov and Nikolai Zherdev couldn't even find jobs this fall. I decided to check out all Russian players that entered the league since 1990 (roughly the time the Russian hockey powers let players come to North America as youths or in their prime rather than in the twilight of their careers) and see if there were many that have showed the trend Ovechkin and Kovalchuk have without something obvious--like the knee injuries of Pavel Bure, to take one example--to explain the decline.
First of all, I limited the cases to players who had careers of 8 years or longer; this rules out  players like Filatov and Zherdev, who never lived up to potential even for a short time. And I would, looking at the results, say that I was not imagining the phenomenon; I found 44 Russian-born  players whose careers started in 1990 or later that met the career length standard, and of those, 20--nearly half--had either noticeable declines that turned out to be permanent in mid-career, including some that were truly precipitous, or were so inconsistent as to be moving around the league far more often than their talent would indicate they ought to be. The list is Maxim Afinogenev, Nic Antropov, Ilya Bryzgalov, Sergei Federov, Alexander Frolov, Valeri Kamensky, Nikolai Khabibulin, Kovalchuk, Andrei Kovalenko, Alexei Kovalev, Sergei Krisakrasov, Oleg Kassia, Alexander Mogilny, Ovechkin, Sergei Samsonov, Alexander Semin, German Titov, Anton Volenchenko, and Alexei Yashin. Some of these guys were enigmas from the day of arrival in the NHL--Samsonov, Yashin, and Semin most prominent; others like Kovalev, Bryzgalov, and Afinogenev have been so inconsistent--Bryzgalov was one of the best goalies in the league the last couple of years for Phoenix, but he got to Phoenix because Anaheim waived him because he couldn't stop a beachball for two years--as to defy logical explanation. Mogilny was the Ovechkin of his time, and ended up playing for four teams and didn't come close to scoring the 76 goals he scored for the Sabres as a 23YO ever again. Federov, too, was the best player in the league for a time, and ended up falling far and fast without injuries and played out the string all over the league. Frolov was a Ranger last year, and simply looked like he had forgotten how to play the game.
There have been consistently good Russian players, too--one of my favorite players for fifteen years was ex-Ranger Sergei Zubov, and Pavel Datsyuk on the Red Wings has been one of the best players in the league for a decade. But the evidence suggests that once Russian guys start to lose it, they're not going to get it back. It does not have to be caused by alcoholism, either; maybe it is just a cumulative effect of all those plane flights halfway around the world, or annoyance with our culture, or cigarettes (I have read that a lot players born in Eastern Europe smoke even as NHL players). But the effect is real, and I would be very surprised if Ovechkin ever scores more than 40 goals in a season again. And the Capitals' window as contenders has closed--especially since Semin, another of their key players, is on this list, too.

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