Yesterday, we used the Snepsts system to take a closer look at Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang of the Pittsburgh Penguins, and to place their current seasons in a historical context. Today, we'll complete our preparations for the Winter Classic by looking at their opponents, Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green of the Washington Capitals.
The Snepsts System
There are many ways to search history to find players with comparable statistics. What particularly defines the Snepsts system is that it searches all of NHL's history, normalizes data to the modern era, rules out players over two years older or younger, and weights current, previous and past seasons at a 4:2:1 ratio. A more detailed explanation of the methodology is here.
As a reminder, these are not similar players, but rather players with similar statistics. Looking at how the future unfolded for them can be an entertaining way to give us insight into what to expect from our target players.
Alexander Ovechkin, 25
Alexander Ovechkin scored 52 goals and 106 points in his first NHL season, accumulating 271 goals and 529 points over his first five seasons, causing several analysts to muse whether Gretzky's career goal scoring record could someday be in jeopardy. Note: It probably isn't.
The Great One's own goal scoring levels started to drop at age 25, from 73 goals to 52 goals. In fact, the same man who previously averaged over 80 goals a season could only manage even 50 goals just three more times the rest of his career. In this fashion, Gretzky was hardly unique, as most of history's great goal scorers saw their goal scoring arc down noticeably at age 25. Let's see if Ovechkin's historical comparables can add to this insight.
Age Closest Comparable GP G A PTS
24 Busher Jackson 1934-35 42 24 32 56
25 Gordie Howe 1953-54 70 38 62 100
23 Mario Lemieux 1988-89 76 63 87 150
23 Paul Kariya 1997-98 22 18 15 33
26 Jean Beliveau 1957-58 55 27 33 60
27 Guy Lafleur 1978-79 80 41 64 105
24 Steve Yzerman 1989-90 79 47 50 97
26 Eric Lindros 1999-00 55 27 33 60
25 Jari Kurri 1985-86 78 47 46 93
25 Jaromir Jagr 1997-98 77 37 73 110
Worst (Beliveau) 82 40 49 89
Best (Lemieux) 82 68 93 161
Average 82 49 62 111
VUKOTA (over 82 GP) 82 55 64 119
It's quite interesting that two players, Jean Beliveau and Eric Lindros, had identical normalized stats, and that Ovechkin is on pace for 29 goals and 59 assists for “only” 88 points, only one point below the level of those two players.
Of course, for Ovechkin to actually continue scoring at this level, he'd have to continue to convert on only 8.0% of his shots, far lower than his career average of 12.1%hardly likely. While it's reasonable to predict that Ovechkin's days of scoring 50 goals a season could be numbered, there's just no way that a generational talent like him will drop below 30 goals so soon, barring injury.
Nicklas Backstrom, 23
Nicklas Backstrom's scoring has risen steadily from 69 points as a 20-year-old rookie in 2007-08, to 88 points, to finally 101 points last season. Playing alongside an offensive juggernaut like Ovechkin was a great way to finish top three in assists in each of the last two seasons.
Unfortunately, Ovechkin's quasi-slump has slowed Backstrom down, and even if he plays all 82 games (like he has every year so far), he'll be good for only 23 goals, 53 assists and 76 points. Let's see how his comparables have done in similar situations.
Age Closest Comparable GP G A PTS
25 Andy Bathgate 1957-58 65 30 49 79
22 Denis Savard 1983-84 75 26 42 68
25 Dutch Reibel 1955-56 68 19 46 65
22 Henri Richard 1958-59 63 20 30 50
24 Tom Cook 1931-32 48 13 24 37
24 Peter Forsberg 1997-98 72 26 72 98
24 Jason Spezza 2007-08 76 35 59 94
24 Marcel Dionne 1975-76 80 32 46 78
24 Neil Colville 1938-39 47 20 23 43
23 Stan Mikita 1963-64 70 39 52 91
Worst (Cook) 82 23 41 64
Best (Forsberg) 82 30 82 112
Average 82 32 54 86
VUKOTA (over 82 GP) 82 35 69 104
Even in this limited sample, there's a very wide range of outcomes. At the moment, Backstrom's pace seems to most closely match Dutch Reibel, who had the tremendous fortune of playing with a 26-year-old Gordie Howe on the repeating Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings. What you see above is his third straight season in the league's top eight scorers despite being only 25 years old. Unfortunately, he was moved off the top line the next season, then shipped to Chicago in an eight player swap, and finally out of the NHL by age 28.
Of course, that's just one possible career trajectory, and an unlikely one for someone of Backstrom's talent, playing in a league with 180 top six opportunities instead of the 36 in Reibel's day. By contrast, several of these other trajectories eventually landed in the Hall of Famelike six of these ten (with a seventh, Forsberg, likely to follow). Backstrom will most likely fall somewhere in the middle, and a lot closer to the Hall of Famers, the longer he can stay with Ovechkin.
Mike Green, 25
Mike Green scored only 15 points in his first 92 NHL games, but exploded at age 22, earning an extra 10 minutes of ice time per game, scoring 68 goals and 137 assists for 205 points in his next 225 contests.
Unfortunately, a great deal of his scoring was tied to Ovechkin. Assuming Green plays all remaining games, and matches last year's total of 75 GPhis second best in four seasonshe'll finish with only 16 goals and 23 assists for 39 points.
It's a big challenge to find comparables to a player with statistics as unique as Green's, and an even bigger challenge finding someone who slowed down to the same extent the next season.
Age Closest Comparable GP G A PTS
24 Ray Bourque 1984-85 73 14 49 63
26 Sandis Ozolinsh 1998-99 39 7 27 34
24 Denis Potvin 1977-78 80 25 57 82
27 Phil Housley 1991-92 74 18 51 69
27 Sergei Gonchar 2001-02 76 27 36 63
23 Paul Coffey 1984-85 80 26 62 88
25 Brad Park 1973-74 78 22 52 74
24 Ian Turnbull 1977-78 77 12 42 54
27 Al MacInnis 1990-91 78 22 62 84
27 Eddie Wares 1942-43 47 9 16 25
Worst (Wares) 75 15 25 40
Best (Coffey) 75 25 58 83
Average 75 19 47 66
VUKOTA (over 75 GP) 75 17 50 67
All of these defensemen continued to have monster seasons, with three of them continuing to score over the modern era equivalent of a point-a-game pace. The only exception was fellow Calgarian Eddie Wares, but he is a weak match at best, having generated a fair deal of his offense when he was moved up to the right wing.
It would be more accurate to say that Mike Green's scoring is more dependent on his teammates (one in particular) than the group above. It's either that, or none of the others had to contend with sudden slumps. Just like we saw Kris Letang's scoring rise with Crosby's, Mike Green's scoring is dropping with Ovechkin'sit's reasonable to expect that to continue until their luck changes.
Just like we saw yesterday how Sidney Crosby's hot streak can elevate his teammates, Alexander Ovechkin's bad luck can have an adverse effect on his. As soon as his shots start finding twine instead of posts, blockers and shin padshopefully in time for the Winter Classic! expect Backstrom and Green's production to rise closer to projected levels.
If you find these studies interesting, please take advantage of either the comment section or the email link to request analyses of other players, using either the Snepsts system, or a requested alternative.
Robert Vollman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
You can contact Robert by clicking here or click here to see Robert's other articles.