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Alex Ovechkin and the problem with plus/minus

Alex Ovechkin's minus-17 rating isn't telling you what you think it's telling you, so stop trying to tell us about it.

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

If you have been paying even the slightest bit of attention this season you are probably already well aware that Alex Ovechkin, in the middle of one of the best individual goal-scoring seasons in recent memory, is a minus-17 entering the weekend, and oh man is this a big deal.

The discussion seemingly reached its climax for the season on Thursday night following the Capitals' 5-2 loss in Columbus when Ovechkin walked away from the rink with a minus-five for the night after being on the ice for every goal the Blue Jackets scored. That's a tough outing. As a team, the Capitals were lousy, and Ovechkin stood up after the game and said he was the worst player on the ice.

For one night, maybe he was.

But what about that minus-17 for the season? And what does it mean for a guy that has a real shot to score 60 goals this season? Probably not what we think it means.

Every year the hockey community gets a little closer to realizing that plus/minus is not telling us what we think it's telling us. Eventually we're going to stop paying much attention to it and start recognizing it for what it is.

Unfortunately, this is not going to be that year.

What it is is a record of how many goals were scored for and against a certain player when that player is on the ice at even-strength. That's it. As far as telling us why those goals were scored, or how those goals were scored, it leaves us completely in the dark. As much as we want it to, it tells us nothing about defensive play or offensive play.

It doesn't take into account goaltending (your teams goaltending or your opponents goaltending), one of the biggest driving forces behind plus/minus.

It totally discounts something as simple as puck luck. If a forward like Phil Kessel plays 18 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey in a game and his team outshoots the opposition 10-1 with him on the ice, but that one shot against goes in -- the only shot to go in for either team -- because his goaltender misplayed the puck, or because a shot bounced off of another player, that's a minus-one in the box score for the night. Must have been a bad game.

It offers no predictive value for how a player is going to perform in the future or how many goals are going to be scored with him on the ice. Take for example the recently traded Mark Fraser. A year ago he finished the season as the Maple Leafs' leader at plus-18. He was in the top-20 in the entire NHL. This season he couldn't crack the Maple Leafs' lineup and was a healthy scratch in 20 of the past 22 games before being traded to hockey Siberia (Edmonton) on Friday for two players that will likely have no significant impact in the NHL. If they ever play in the NHL.

But let's get back to Ovechkin and his bizarre statistical season. So many goals. So many goals against. What the hell is going on here?

When we have a player that is scoring goals like Ovechkin currently is (and that does not happen very often these days -- unless it's Ovechkin or Steven Stamkos) and is on the ice for even more goals against it simply must mean that he is terrible defensively and needs to try harder in his own end. It's not exactly an industry secret that Ovechkin isn't the best defensive player in the world. But man do we seem to go out of our way to focus on the times he messes up or might be at fault. If you really wanted to, you could watch enough film on every player in the league -- the best and the worst -- and find shifts where they missed an assignment or coasted back into the play. No other player in the league seems to be put under that microscope as often as Ovechkin is, and it seems to be even worse this season thanks to that ugly minus number.

The thing about all of this is Ovechkin's rating this season is probably being driven down by offense just as much as it is being driven down by defense.

Seriously. He's not Patrice Bergeron or Pavel Datsyuk defensively. We get it. But he's also been a little unlucky this season at both ends of the ice.

Sure, he is scoring goals, but a lot of them (14 to be exact) have come on the power play, which isn't under the plus/minus umbrella (unless your team gives up a shorthanded goal while you're on the ice), and nobody on his team is scoring alongside him at even-strength.

The chart below is a year-by-year look (as far back as 2007-08) at Ovechkin's own shooting percentage during 5-on-5 play, his on-ice shooting percentage during 5-on-5 play (his shooting percentage combined with all of his teammates), and his on-ice save percentage (how many shots his goalies are stopping with him on the ice.

Year Ovechkin Shooting % On-Ice Shooting % On-Ice Save %
2013-14 12.1% 7.25% .900
2012-13 11.5% 11.2% .916
2011-12 9.85% 8.75% .916
2010-11 8.50% 9.09% .929
2009-10 14.9% 12.2% .936
2008-09 10.2% 10.2% .900
2007-08 12.7% 10.7% .905

Notice anything that stands out there?

Check out the differences between his own shooting percentage, and the team shooting percentage with him on the ice. Every year they are pretty similar if not nearly identical. Every year except this year. The puck is still going in off of his stick, but it's not going in for his line mates. The Capitals have scored 30 5-on-5 goals with Ovechkin on the ice this season, and only nine of them have been scored by somebody other than him.

His linemates this season are shooting at a level that would you expect to see from a fourth-liner.  It's crazy. I suppose you could make the argument that he isn't doing a good job setting up his teammates and that is driving down their shooting percentages. That seems as if it would be highly unlikely. He's an excellent passer and always has been. Only nine players have more assists than him since he entered the league in 2005-06. He didn't just forget how to pass or set his teammates up. Sometimes the puck doesn't get in.

Isn't it possible that the plus/minus rating could look just a little different if his teammates weren't collectively shooting like a bunch of Daniel Winnik's or Craig Adams'? Players can impact the number of shots they take and the number of shots their team takes (and allows). They can't always control how many of those shots (or which shots) actually go in the net or stay out of the net. Right now, none of the shots off of his teammates sticks are going in. That is out of his control.

It's funny, when the Capitals did try to change Ovechkin and play a more defensively responsible game, a switch that resulted in a couple of mere 30-goal seasons, the issue at hand was that he was done as an elite goal-scorer and if he wasn't scoring goals, he wasn't helping his team. Well, now he IS an elite goal-scorer again and apparently it's still not good enough.

Ovechkin is what he is, and you would be wise not to try and change it. He is one of the best goal-scorers that has ever played in the NHL that has some shortcomings defensively that probably get overstated a bit. On the list of problems with the Capitals this season his play is somewhere near the bottom, plus/minus be damned.

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