Why Alex Ovechkin’s Offense Is Soaring at Age 36

As Alex Ovechkin enters the twilight years of his illustrious career, the narrative surrounding each passing Washington Capitals season seemingly has less to do with title contention and more to do with catching Wayne Gretzky’s all-time goal-scoring record.

Frankly, that’s understandable. The Great One’s mark of 894 goals has long felt unattainable, but The Great 8’s climb toward hockey immortality is relentless. He’s sitting on 750 tallies and still finding the back of the net at a torrid clip. Over the past three years, he’s paced for over 50 goals per 82 games and ranks second in all-situations scoring rate behind Auston Matthews.

Quick reminder: Ovechkin is 36 years old.

But if there’s one Cap who doesn’t appear too fussed about this milestone at the moment, it’s OV. In a bizarre turn, he’s never been more interested in setting up his teammates instead. He’s currently tied for second in assists leaguewide and posting the highest 5-on-5 assist rate of his career by a country mile. There’s no denying his lofty 17.2 on-ice shooting percentage, but even if it regresses to the usual ballpark (10-12%), he’ll still be racking up a ton of helpers. His primary assist rate alone this season is higher than any total assist rate he’s registered since 2016-17.

In the past, he mainly facilitated for teammates by…just being there. His presence alone commands so much attention that every other Cap on the ice is granted more time and space than they know what to do with. That hasn’t changed:

Opponents double-team him on the backdoor and allow other Washington players to waltz straight into the slot. When he’s posted at the left circle for his patented one-timer on the power play, both penalty-killing forwards are often involved in denying Ovechkin his preferred look. Of course, devoting half of your PK personnel to silencing one threat makes every other individual on the man advantage that much more dangerous.

Even in his 17th NHL season, Ovechkin carries serious gravity. If you grant him a sliver of daylight—the tiniest window through which Evgeny Kuznetsov, John Carlson or another Cap can connect with him—he’ll absolutely ruin your day. As he’s proven throughout his career, it only takes one shot.

There’s more to it than that, though. Ovechkin is helping his teammates tickle the twine when he’s in possession of the puck as well. He’s revamped his decision-making to become a true dual threat in 2021-22.

While he’s always been a capable passer, he’s never been such an eager one:

None of these sequences result in a goal, but they showcase a shift in Ovechkin’s mentality. In previous years, he would try to blast contested shots from distance. And he’d be justified in doing so because he’s averaged 50 goals over the course of his entire career. A truly absurd scoring rate. But since the Caps are without the services of veteran pivot Nicklas Backstrom (hip injury), OV has embraced a heavier playmaking burden.

As such, opponents no longer know what to expect. If he has some room to operate, he’ll gladly fire shot after shot on goal. If blueliners try to stick to him like glue, he’ll spot a trailer on the rush or a linemate creeping toward the backdoor. By feeling out defenses rather than charging at them, his five-man unit is enjoying higher-quality opportunities and posting its highest expected goal rate in years. He’s passing up good shots to create great ones.

Given his soft hands, underrated vision and the persisting menace of his laser, he’s piling up the assists and beating the likes of Artemi Panarin and Jonathan Huberdeau at their own game:

Ovechkin’s willingness to feed his teammates has heightened his club’s ceiling on the attack. Kuznetsov has as many goals in 28 contests this season as he totaled over 41 outings a year ago. Wilson is on pace for a career high in scoring. Despite icing only one top-six center to this point in the campaign, Washington ranks fifth in the league offensively. Backstrom is slated to return soon too, which will only strengthen the Caps’ forward corps.

And the beauty of life as a dual threat is that both sides of the coin are enhanced. Ovechkin’s knack for scoring goals opens up a wealth of playmaking possibilities, whereas his newfound taste for setting up teammates is forcing defenses to second-guess themselves. They can’t defend him the way they always have. They can’t offer the same level of resistance.

When you’re up against a historically good goal scorer, that’s…bad news:

Ovechkin remains a phenomenal marksman and terrifying one-on-one cover. He can rip shots through goaltenders, he can dangle past defenders, he can park his 6’3”, 238-pound frame in the slot. He’s fine-tuned his movement from the left circle to the backdoor on the power play. He has superb timing, sniffing out chances and jumping on top of them before anyone else can. He can convert from virtually anywhere in the offensive zone.

Now he’s less predictable than ever with the puck on his stick. He’s just as likely to thread the needle as he is to bombard goaltenders or bulldoze a path to prime real estate. That dynamic has yielded 44 points in 28 games and his most potent offensive season to date (1.57 PPG).

At age 36, it’s a wrinkle no one saw coming.

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