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In Slight Defense of Alex Ovechkin's Defense

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Throughout his career, Alex Ovechkin's once-in-a-generation offensive ability has mitigated his defensive shortcomings. A historical anomaly, however, has recently brought the latter to the forefront.

    Ovechkin currently leads the NHL with 48 goals and has the worst plus-minus among 864 players at minus-36. He would become the first player since the league began tracking plus-minus in 1967-1968 to earn that dubious distinction.

    Among NHL statistics, plus-minus is certainly the most polarizing. It measures a player's individual goal differential during even-strength and shorthanded play, but does not take into account other factors such as the play of teammates both offensively and defensively.

    To be fair, Ovechkin, who has not scored at even strength in a career-high 16 straight games, is receiving little scoring help from his teammates. The on-ice shooting percentage of Ovechkin's linemates this season was a miniscule 3.3 percent as of Tuesday, the lowest percentage in the NHL over the past seven years. 

    Yet a lackadaisical and indefensible defensive effort such as Ovechkin's on the Dallas Stars' fourth goal Tuesday cannot simply be ignored. And coach Adam Oates did not, saying Wednesday that his superstar captain "quit on the play coming back."

    Ovechkin was not made available for comment Thursday.

    As of Thursday morning, Oates had not met with Ovechkin to discuss the play in question (despite addressing the media on the topic multiple times), but when he does, he plans to reinforce the need for Ovechkin to stay involved in the play regardless of what zone it is in.

    “The message is the same message I tell him all the time,” Oates said. “It’s a shame because he actually pushed hard up the ice and I’m sure when he turned around he saw that we had three guys back and figured they were going to get the job done and they didn’t.

    "It happens to everybody at times. No question. Every player has their momentary lapses. It’s just a reminder to him that you can’t. You’re in the spotlight. You can’t."

    Ovechkin will never be confused with a defensive stalwart. His defensive acumen has definitely not improved, but it also has not necessarily regressed. 

    His lack of even-strength production, his linemates' lack of even-strength production and the Capitals' inability to defend as a whole at even strength -- not to mention a .903 save percentage when he is on the ice during five-on-five play, lowest among Capitals skaters with at least 57 games played -- have all accentuated his defensive flaws. 

    That is not to say Ovechkin does not deserve criticism for efforts such as the one shown above, because he does. To call Ovechkin defensively deficient may be generous. 

    Ovechkin's ghastly plus-minus, however, is a symptom of a larger, team-wide issue at even strength. 

    “I’m trying to get him to play better and better five-on-five hockey no question," Oates said prior to the Dallas game Tuesday. "But I’m also trying to do the same thing with all of us.”


    Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamVingan and e-mail your story ideas to adamvingan (at) gmail.com.