Monday, March 18, 2013

Alex Ovechkin's All-Time Great Statistical Decline

By GTOG Staff (follow us on Twitter)

Sometimes we have trouble letting things go.

Last month, Neil Greenberg of the Washington Post compared Alex Ovechkin's current statistical decline to the supposed decline at age 27 of the 13 other NHL players who have scored 50 goals in at least four different seasons (the "4x50 group").  Greenberg concluded:
Collectively, they reach their goal-scoring peak around the age of 23 and see a downturn after age 27. Ovechkin turned 27 this past September. So you see, this scoring performance drop is well within the confines of what we have seen from the NHL’s elite in years past.
We immediately pointed out that this conclusion was completely wrong and insulting to the legacy of not only Mario Lemieux, but all 13 players in that 4x50 group.  Neil incorrectly called our post "wrong and misguided on almost every level" and refused to engage us in a debate until we learned more about Corsi and Fenwick and just generally did more research.

He wanted research.  We did research.  Click to continue reading...

Greenberg made his claim while trying to show that Ovechkin is not "washed up," but he's conflating two distinct issues.  Ovechkin can still be a very good player while he is experiencing a decline in production that is significantly worse than the all-time greats Greenberg selected for comparison. In fact, that's what's happening.

Let's break it down.

1. Before he turned 25, Ovechkin's goal-scoring was consistent with the 4x50 group, if not better.  But since his 25th birthday, Ovechkin's goal scoring dropoff has been significantly worse than the 4x50 group.

2. Does it look even worse for Ovechkin when it comes to total points?  Of course it does!

The players in the 4x50 group were not only maintaining their excellence at age 27; they were peaking, before tapering off modestly through age 30.  Ovechkin peaked statistically 3 years ago, then fell off a cliff.

3. The most obvious problem with Greenberg's conclusion that Ovechkin's current statistical decline is "well within the confines of what we have seen from the NHL's elite in years past" is that Ovechkin's decline did not start when he turned 27.  It happened at the beginning of the 2010-11 season, when he had just turned 25 years old.

So now that we've established a reality where we don't have to pretend that Ovechkin's statistical decline started two months ago, we have to ask: how does Ovechkin's actual statistical decline -- the one that started at age 25 -- compare to the supposed "decline" of the all-time greats?

4. Before turning 25, Ovechkin scored at a pace of 56 goals per 82 games.  Since he's turned 25, he's scored at a pace of 36 goals per 82 games.  That's a 36% drop-off, which is significantly worse than the 4x50 group.

Seven of the players actually got better after turning 25 and four stayed about the same. The only arguable comparable is Gretzky, but 1) Gretzky was coming down from astronomical heights; 2) he still averaged 16 more goals per 82 games than Ovechkin's current pace; and 3) wait, are we seriously comparing Ovechkin and Gretzky?

5. How do things look when it comes to overall point production pre- and post-25?  Pretty terrible!

Again, Ovechkin's decline is significantly worse than the supposed "decline" of his peers.  And, again, most of these guys were actually BETTER from ages 25 to 30 than they were before age 25.

To sum it up: Ovechkin's statistical decline started at age 25, not age 27.  Most in the 4x50 group that Greenberg chose to compare him to actually got better after turning 25.  Ovechkin's numbers are getting worse.  A lot worse.  Nothing about his statistical decline is "well within the confines of what we have seen from the NHL’s elite in years past."

Ultimately, we agree with Greenberg that Ovechkin is not washed up and obviously these numbers are subject to change if he can turn things around.  But to pretend that his statistical decline is in any way normal for a player who was otherworldly during his first 5 seasons isn't just laughable.  It's wrong and misguided.  On every level.

Finally, we hope it is transparent that our motivation for doing this post has less to do with Greenberg than it has to do with protecting the legacy of Mario Lemieux from being lumped into a lazy comparison with a guy who averages 30% of the points that Mario did at the same age. 

Next time, pick a different control group.

Editor's note: We understand that this post guarantees Ovechkin will have a hat trick against the Pens on Tuesday night.