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December 30, 2010
Howe and Why
Ovechkin, Backstrom and Green

by Robert Vollman

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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 Fame—like 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 GP—his second best in four seasons—he'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's—it's reasonable to expect that to continue until their luck changes.

Wrapping Up

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 pads—hopefully 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.

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