Alex Ovechkin: The Sniper King

It is no secret that since he came into the NHL in 2005, Alex Ovechkin has been the best goal scorer in hockey. In fact, over the past three seasons, Ovechkin’s 110 goals over the passed three seasons is 29 more than the second place scorers Joe Pavelski and Tyler Seguin.

Ovechkin is entering the all star break with 27 goals, good for 3rd in the NHL behind Seguin and Rick Nash, who both have 28 goals apiece. The rest of the top 10 goal scorers features most of the usual suspects, with Steven Stamkos right behind Ovechkin at 26, Pavelski at 24, a young incomer into the top ten in Vladimir Tarasenko, who also has 24. Let’s actually take a visual look at the top ten scorers, and we will see if anything stands out.

Player Games Played Goals Scored Shooting %
Seguin 46 28 14.6
Nash 44 28 17.3
Ovechkin 46 27 12.3
Stamkos 48 26 16.5
Tarasenko 46 24 14.9
Pavelski 48 24 15.5
P. Kane 47 22 15.2
Tavares 46 21 14.4
Pacioretty 45 21 12.8
Tatar 47 21 17.5

While the goal totals of these 10 players are relatively close, the shooting percentages are not all that close. In fact, Ovechkin’s shooting percentage is much lower than every player in the top ten, and the only one that is even somewhat comparable is Max Pacioretty. While the difference between Ovechkin’s shooting percentage and, let’s say Stamkos’ shooting percentage is only a difference of 4.2 percent. For a lot of thing, a difference of 4.2 percent isn’t that big of a deal. But when you are working with something in a large sample size, like shots over the course of an entire season, it can be a huge difference. Let’s say, hypothetically, Ovechkin and Stamkos both finish the year with 300 shots. If they maintained those same shooting percentages throughout the season, Stamkos would finish with 12 more goals than Ovechkin!

Is Ovechkin having a unsuccessful season so far shooting percentage wise? Actually, no. Ovechkin’s current 12,3 percent success rate is directly on top of his 12.3 percent career average. In fact, 12.3 percent is actually his sixth highest shooting percentage of his career. It actually should even be noted that while Ovechkin’s current 12.3 percent pace is well below the leagues top goal scorers, we are, well, comparing him to the best shooters in the world. Ovechkin’s 12.3 percent is well above the leagues 9.06 percent average last season.

So because Ovechkin is far less accurate than guys like Stamkos or Patrick Kane, does that mean he is a far worse shooter than the top NHL scorers? Of course not. It just simply means that these other scorers are taking more quality shots than Ovechkin.

How important is shot quality? According to Tom Awad’s piece “Shot Quality” in the latest edition of Hockey Abstract, players who take shots within 9 feet of the net had a 19 percent chance of scoring in the 2013-2014 on average, and shots taken within 10 feet of the net are seven times more likely to go in the net than a shot taken from 60 feet out our further. This obviously makes sense theoretically, but the data proves it to be true, as Awad states. These shooting percentage success rates can be looked even further by looking at them through a goaltending perspective, easily visualized in War-On-Ice’s Goaltender Hextally section. Players succeed at scoring goals within that “Home Plate” as Hockey Abstract’s Rob Vollman refers to that area.

So if Ovechkin isn’t following the normal route that top goal scorers take to lead the league in scoring, why exactly is Ovechkin consistently at the top? One obvious answer is his sheer shot volume, comparable to virtually no one else in the league. The other factor is his ability to score from virtually anywhere on the ice.

Ovechkin’s Shot Volume

Anyone who consistently follows the Washington Capitals, or, even hockey for that matter, knows that Ovechkin takes a ton of shots. And when you take a ton of shots, two things obviously happen: 1) Your shooting percentage will go down with a high sample size and 2) You give yourself far more opportunities to score. So Ovechkin’s shooting percentage is much lower than his fellow goal scoring leaders because he is just firing the puck away every chance he gets. Let’s take a look at those same goal scoring leaders mentioned earlier, and we’ll see how many shots each of them have taken.

Player Shots Taken
Seguin 192
Nash 162
Ovechkin 219
Stamkos 158
Tarasenko 161
Pavelski 155
P. Kane 145
Tavares 146
Pacioretty 164
Tatar 120

Unsurprisingly, Ovechkin has taken far more shots than all of the other goal scoring leaders. Ovechkin is the only one in the league so far this season who has taken more than 200 shots. Seguin is second in the league, and then surprisingly Claude Giroux and Erik Karlsson are tied for 3rd in the league with 176 shots (Giroux has a 9.1 shooting percentage, Karlsson’s at 6.3 percent, maybe they should stop shooting). And this isn’t a new trend for Ovechkin. Since Ovechkin came into the league in 2005, he has led the league in shots taken every year except the 2011-2012 season, where he had his second lowest goal output of his career (38) under a very defensive head coach (Dale Hunter). Just to give you an idea of just how much Ovechkin is shooting the puck, since 2005, Ovechkin has 3,654 regular season shots in 725 games, ranking him 31st all time. He sits just 39 shots behind 30th ranked Bill Guerin, who played 538 more games than Ovechkin. Ovechkin’s 725 games is dwarfed by every player in the shot leader list. The player with the next highest shots that played 725 games or less? Pavel Bure, who played in the offensive-happy 90s and recorded 3,130 shots in 702 games, good for 73rd all time. And the current player who has taken the most shots and has played under 725 games? Jeff Carter, who has taken 2,347 shots in 683 games, ranking him 168th all time. That’s 1307 less shots than Ovechkin.

Ovechkin scores lots of goals because he shoots the puck lots of times. You have to shoot if you want to score. You know the saying by Wayne Gretzky…

You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take

This is coming from the NHL’s sixth all time leading shooter with 5,089 shots (Ovechkin’s on pace to pass him).

And good things tend to happen when you shoot the puck. Even if you don’t score on a shot, you likely will at the very least set up a scoring chance, especially if you shoot the puck as hard as Ovechkin.

Ovechkin currently has 16 assists this season. Of those 16 assists, 15 of them are primary assists. Now, Ovechkin is very much an underrated passer, but I’m willing to bet a decent percentage of those primary assists were a result of a rebound shot. In fact, this season, one of Nicklas Backstrom’s most memorable goals, an overtime winner against the Carolina Hurricanes, came off of an Ovechkin rebound opportunity, and it was Ovechkin’s 400th career assist.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qXQ04L0QyYE

And rebound opportunities give shooters a really good chance of scoring goals. Awad found in that “Shot Quality” article that while rebounds represent 6.7 percent of all shots taken in the NHL, they make up 18 percent of all goals. And a rebound that is taken and shot within two seconds has a 28 percent chance of scoring, and a rebound taken within 4 seconds has a 15 percent chance of scoring, well above the league average of non-rebound shots at 8 percent.

So Ovechkin is different from other shooters in the sense that he takes more shots than a normal hockey player. But does that necessarily make him a better shooter?

It’s really a matter of preference. If you have a guy that takes shots when he has a good opportunity to do so, like Stamkos, that’s obviously really valuable. And if you have a guy like Ovechkin that generates a ton of shots, with the possibility of creating chances for his teammates, that’s valuable too.

To me, what separates a good shooter from a great shooter is his ability to score from virtually anywhere on the ice. And few are better than that than Alex Ovechkin.

Ovechkin’s Shot Location

Shot location is very much related to a shooting percentage. The closer you are to the net, the more likely you are to score. Of course, virtually every NHL player is likely to score a goal when they are within five feet of the crease. But is an average player as likely to score from 25 feet? 45 feet? 60 feet?

Of course not, but those who can score from that distance are obviously excellent shooters. We can identify where goal scorers tend to score from by looking at shot location data.

One website that keeps track of shot location data is Sporting Charts, and you can view individual players data through their Ice Track section. These maps show individual’s shooting and scoring areas through a heat map. They are just like any other heat map. Red means that that player scores (or shoots, depending on what you set it at) a lot from that particular area, greens moderate, etc.

Unfortunately, the data only goes back to the year 2009, but that still gives us a perfect example of for the leagues top goal scorers. When we look at all of the goals Alex Ovechkin has scored since 2009, we get a map that has a few red splotches , but nothing too dramatic. He has scored a decent amount from in front of the net, and you can even tell that Ovechkin likes to hang at the top of the face off circle for his spot on the power play. If you compare Ovechkin’s heat map for his goal scored since 2009 to everyone of the players in the top ten scorers list, you begin to notice that every scorer has a huge red spot where they score the majority of their goals (excluding Tarasenko and Tomas Tatar due to small sample size). Seguin hangs out directly in front of the crease. Nash does the same thing. Stamkos as well.  Even when you look more outside the top ten goal scorers for this year, you see a similar pattern. James Van Riemsdyk, one of the NHL’s best players in front of the crease, obviously has a huge red spot directly in front of the crease. Evgeni Malkin does too. It’s not until you compare Ovechkin to Phil Kessel , who has 19 goals this year, do you begin to see a similar goal scorer, one that has the ability to score from any point of the ice.

Ovechkin will once again be right in the mix for the Maurice Rocket Richard trophy, and he more than likely will be in it next season and the year after that. While he may not be as accurate shooting the puck as some of this top opponents, he has the ability to pepper the oppositions goalie with a flurry of shots each and every night, and you never know where they are coming from. The ability to outshoot everyone, combined with the ability to score anywhere, makes Ovechkin the leagues top goal scorer.