BOSTON (CBS) — What Alex Ovechkin is doing this season has gotten to the point where it can no longer be ignored.
No, I’m not talking about his goals.
I’m talking about his plus-minus rating.
Ovechkin currently has the league lead in goals with 45, holding a comfortable nine-goal lead over Corey Perry. He has the title in the bag. But Ovechkin is also closing in on another league lead, though it’s on the opposite end.
The NHL’s leading goal scorer currently owns a minus-31 rating on the season, ranking him 847th, or second-worst, in the league. Edmonton’s Nail Yakupov owns those honors with a minus-33.
That Ovechkin, with his 45 goals and 23 assists on a team that’s been outscored by just six goals on the season, is competing for the worst plus-minus in the league with a forward who has 44 fewer points on a team that’s been outscored by 53 goals is nothing short of incredible.
You almost have to respect it at this point.
As everyone knows, plus-minus is a greatly flawed stat. It’s far from an end all-be all in evaluating a player, and there are a number of variables that are out of a player’s control which contribute to the number. Wayne Gretzky, the best player not named Robert to ever lace ’em up, had seasons where he finished with minus-25 and minus-23 ratings, and he finished his career with a minus-80 rating from 1993-99 after he was a plus-597 from 1979-1993. It’s a weird stat, it doesn’t always tell the entire story, and there are much better ways to analyze hockey players.
(For the record, Robert Gordon Orr finished exactly zero seasons with a negative rating — not even during his one-legged years in Chicago, which never even happened anyway.)
Still, it’s not completely meaningless, as some would like you to believe. And when you’ve scored 26 goals at even strength and you’re still rocking a minus-31, you’re doing something wrong. You’re doing a whole bunch of things wrong. And to be doing so many things wrong while doing so many other things right is hard to believe.
Ovechkin’s gotten here all sorts of ways. His most impressive showing might have been a minus-5 in a 5-2 loss at Columbus in late January. He scored twice against Boston on March 1, both on the power play, finishing the game with a minus-1 rating. He was a minus-3 while being held without a point the following game against Philly, and on the back end of that home-and-home, he had a goal and an assist (both on the power play) with a minus-2 rating (the Capitals lost both games).
Ovechkin then went four games without a point while recording a minus-1 rating in each game, and he’s kept the streak alive, as he was a minus-2 in a 4-3 win over Vancouver on Friday and a minus-2 in a 4-2 win over Toronto on Sunday.
In all, he’s a minus-14 in the Capitals’ 10 games following the Olympic break.
It’s impressive at this point. Again, you almost have to respect it.
He has no chance of ever catching Bill Mikkelson, who was a minus-82 for the expansion Capitals in 1974-75, as that team was outscored 446-181 and went 8-67-5 that season. Mikkelson was a defenseman who had three goals and seven assists on the entire year for that awful team, so his legendary minus-82 season is understandable. Well, almost.
But Ovechkin? He’s on a team that sits just two points outside of a playoff spot, and he’s on pace to score 53 goals. We may be witnessing something truly special right now. The only comparable that comes to mind from recent years is Phil Kessel’s 2010-11 season, his second in Toronto, when he scored 32 goals (20 at even strength) and added 32 assists (21 at even strength) but still managed to finish with a minus-20 rating, which ranked him as the 875th-best player in the NHL in that regard. But that Maple Leafs team was pretty bad, finishing with a 37-34-11 record while being outscored 251-218.
Just last year, Ovechkin led the league in the shortened season with 32 goals, and he had a plus-2 rating. Steven Stamkos was a plus-7 the previous year when he led the league with 60 goals, though he is the last Rocket Richard Trophy winner to finish with a negative rating (a minus-2 in 2009-10, when the Lightning finished with a sub-.500 record and were outscored by 43 goals on the season). The only real comparable would be Rick Nash, who was tied for the league lead in goals with 41 in 2003-04. But again, that was for a godawful Blue Jackets team that finished 25-45-8-4 and got outscored by 61 goals.
For a look at the opposite end of the scale, Milan Hejduk led the league with 50 goals in 2002-03, and he finished with a plus-52 rating. That was for a stacked Avalanche team, though.
Not one goal scoring leader since the turn of the century comes close to Ovechkin in terms of volume of goals compared to the relative strength of his team. Ovechkin stands out even on his own roster, as Nicklas Backstrom has the second-worst mark on the Capitals with a minus-17 rating. That’s 14 “better” than Ovechkin.
So what do we take away from all of this? Well for one, whoever made that “Xbox Controller Disconnected” gif last year was ahead of the curve. Beyond that, it’d be slightly unfair to make any grand assessments of Ovechkin the player based on his plus-minus rating this season. After all, even with this year included he is a plus-51 player in his career (Kovalchuk is a minus-116), and he was a plus-2 in five Olympic games for Russia, played in the middle of this amazing plus-minus free fall.
But at the very least, in the absence of an exciting race to see who will lead the NHL in goals this year, we have one incredible streak to watch in awe and wonder — just how low Ovechkin will go?