Alexander Ovechkin has won the Stanley Cup. It was a necessary step in this man’s career, in his life. Never in recent memory has any player in any sport needed a championship so badly to prove himself, and it showed in the way he treasured lifting it.
I myself have been critical of Ovechkin, although in a slightly different way than others.
When Ovechkin was named captain of the Capitals in 2010, I said they would never win a Stanley Cup as long as Ovechkin wore the “C” unless he changed his habits, particularly in regard to ice time. When I started Tough Call Blog in 2016 and the Capitals were eliminated, I took to Twitter and said it again.
The Captain has since hoisted Lord Stanley’s Cup here in 2018, and there’s one significant change Capitals head coach Barry Trotz made that may have made all the difference.
Trotz was hired by the Capitals prior to the 2014-15 season, a team that had just come off a rare year of not even making the playoffs. Specifically looking at Alex Ovechkin, there are things about his role under Trotz that directly correspond to the team’s subsequent change in fortune.
For starters, in Trotz’s four regular seasons, Ovechkin was held to four of his five lowest career averages for time on ice (TOI). The Capitals responded with three straight Metropolitan Division titles and two President’s Trophy winning seasons as best team in the entire NHL. Not that regular season success was completely unknown, but they consistently thrived in this stretch.
This trend continued into the playoffs where, again, Ovechkin was “limited” to four of his five career lowest TOI averages.
Prior to 2014-15, the Ovechkin era Washington Capitals had appeared in 58 playoff games over six playoff appearances, holding a record of 27 wins and 31 losses, and never exiting a playoff with a winning record. They only made the second round three times in nine years, and had just missed the playoffs completely for the third time in Ovechkin’s career.
Since Trotz, the franchise has 62 playoff games to its credit in just four appearances, boasting 36 wins to 26 losses and never having a losing playoff record. They’ve never missed the playoffs and made the second round all four tries, obviously concluding with the ultimate prize in year four.
Now, this playoff turnaround admittedly started in 2014, so why would I tweet what I did in 2016? Wasn’t the problem solved? Not completely.
It’s true that while under Trotz in 2015 and 2016, Ovechkin led the Capitals to a much more reasonable 13-13 combined record and two straight second round appearances. Yet the same bench management mistake was being made in key moments and it ultimately led to the same foregone conclusion: a seethingly frustrating early playoff exit.
This critical mistake is consistently over-depending on Alexander Ovechkin.
Before Trotz, Ovechkin competed in nine total playoff series, winning only three of them. In instances where he played 21:00 or more TOI in over 40% of the games in a single series, the Capitals went 2-6. In the three times he made the second round, Oveckhin always played a higher percentage of games at over 21:00 TOI in round two than he had in the opening round victory, and twice in those three second round series he played over 21:00 TOI 100% of the time. That’s every single game. Obviously he didn’t win either of those.
The one series in which Ovechkin played over 21:00 only twice in a seven game series (29%), they won. Whether by accident or by design, Barrry Trotz followed suit.
In 2015 Ovechkin played over 21:00 TOI only 4 times in the 14 games played and it was evenly split between the two series for that magic 29% series total. As a result, Trotz and Ovechkin held a 3–1 second round series lead and seemed poised to finally take the plunge into the unknown of the Eastern Conference Final. Then, inexplicably, the plan changed. After losing game five, Ovechkin played two games over 21:00 TOI back to back, both losses, and that was the end of the 2014-15 season.
The following year, again Trotz only played Ovechkin over 21:00 just twice in the first round (33%) and again they made the second round. Not learning from this, Ovechkin played over 21:00 in four of the six games in round two (66%). The Capitals lost three of these, including the elimination game six where Ovechkin racked up over 27:00 in a single overtime defeat.
Up to 2016, so including Trotz’s first two playoffs, Ovechkin’s Capitals were still 38-46 overall in the postseason. Ovechkin played over 21:00 TOI a whopping 45 times in those 84 games. That’s over half of the time. Their record in those games? 14 wins, 31 losses. In those other 39 games, where he played less than 21:00 TOI, the team sparkled with 24 wins and just 15 losses.
This 2016 exit is when I reaffirmed what I said. Ovechkin’s ice time patterns needed to change. He needed to play under 21:00 a game in order for the rest of his team to be effective.
What’s happened since is nothing short of a miracle. Over the course of the next two playoffs, that’s exactly what he did.
In 2017, Oveckin opened the playoffs with another series playing 21:00 just 33% of the time (2/6) and another opening round victory. In the second round they took the defending Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins to a seven game thriller. What was exciting to me is after two straight losses to open that series including game two where Ovechkin logged 23:19 TOI, Trotz settled it down. He played Ovechkin for 19:27 (a win) and 19:37 (a loss) in the next two games. Then, down 3 games to 1, facing elimination, Trotz did the unthinkable and played Ovechkin for 17:46 (win), 17:26 (win), and 18:22 (loss) respectively. That move turned this into one of the best playoff series of the entire decade. The Capitals went 3-1 in games three through six and a tight game seven went right down to the wire.
Still, it wasn’t quite enough to get them over the hump. So in 2018, Barry Trotz doubled down.
Overall he only allowed Ovechkin more than 21:00 of regulation TOI six times. Good thing too, because the team went 1-5. In the other 17 games, they went 15-2. 15 wins. 2 losses. In the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Per round, he played over 21:00 TOI just 33%, 33%, 29%, and 0% of the time respectively. You read that right. In the Stanley Cup Final, with everything that matters on the line, the greatest goal scorer in arguably the history of the game had more than 21:00 TOI exactly ZERO times. He actually averaged just 18:49 TOI per game over the entire five game final, and it was easily the most comfortable and dominating series an Ovechkin-led Capitals team has ever had.
What’s most amazing is it almost wasn’t that way. Ovechkin opened up the 2018 playoffs against the Columbus Blue Jackets by playing 23:25 and 26:06 regulation time in games one and two. That’s BEFORE those games went to overtime. He actually ended up with 25:42 in game one and a shocking 30:01 in a single overtime game two. Not at all surprisingly, both those games were losses. It was major gut check time.
With not just a season but an entire playoff legacy hanging in the balance, Ovechkin skated for 19:07 TOI in game three regulation. He ended up with less ice time in this eventual double overtime game than he did in the previous single overtime game, and the Capitals came away with the must win. Four straight games under 20:00 of regulation TOI for Ovechkin led to four straight wins, including just 16:08 in the series clinching victory. The playoffs were saved. They would only lose four more times over the next three rounds to win the franchise’s first Stanley Cup.
When you look at the major contributions from his teammates this season, I don’t think it’s a matter of them “finally stepping up” and helping out. I don’t think it was “just their year” accidentally. Everyone was allowed to play a role, get into a steady rhythm, and most importantly, to consistently stay in that rhythm in every situation.
Even with his reduction in ice time, Ovechkin still led the entire playoffs in goals and had a run worthy of the Conn Smythe Trophy for playoff MVP. Under Barry Trotz, the difference is everyone else wasn’t just along for the ride.