Imagine two trains heading in opposite directions. The one heading north is Phil Kessel. Washington’s Alex Ovechkin is going the other way. You don’t really get the pace of the rise and fall until you see them together.
Saturday’s 7-1 Leafs win over the Caps provided that opportunity. Kessel was probably best player on the ice and notched a goal and an assist. Ovechkin was shut out and finished minus three. Ovechkin will drag a career high four-game goalless slump into tonight’s game with Phoenix. In that stretch he has finished -6.
Have a look at the vast statistical gap between the two in Ulmerstandings VI. Note: to compare apples with apples, the goal, points and shot ranking are league-wide. The ice time and plus-minus, stats heavily influenced by the position played, speak only to forwards.
The graphs present some arresting data. Ovechkin has led the league in shots in each of his six previous NHL seasons. This year, he sits 18th. Kessel is playing 1:29 more a night than Ovechkin. Kessel has lapped Ovechkin in goals and points. Kessel’s plus minus ranking is 386 spots above Ovechkin’s. The combination of Kessel heading north and Ovechkin plummeting to earth has created a staggering chasm between the two.
||ALEX OVECHKIN, 2011-12|
|Goals||16 (1ST)||Goals||7 (36TH)|
|Points||29 (1ST)||Points||14 (62ND)|
|Shots||73 (5TH)||Shots||67 (18TH)|
|Ice time||20:16 (24TH)||Ice time||18:47 (67TH)|
|Plus / Minus||+6 (39TH)||Plus / Minus||-6 (427TH)|
Now to the long view. Take a look at the same statistics from 2010-2011. While both players scored 32 goals last season, the NHL’s tie-breaking formula put Ovechkin five spots above Kessel. The 42-shot gap between Kessel and Ovechkin amounted to just one shot every two games.
The deterioration of Ovechkin’s game and the acceleration of Kessel’s performance did not happen overnight. There was a gigantic gap in plus-minus between the two and Ovechkin carded 21 more points but those were only lopsided stats. It’s just that Ovechkin’s body of work is so much more impressive, any comparison between the two players seemed ludicrous.
||ALEX OVECHKIN, 2011-12|
|Goals||32 (19TH)||Goals||32 (19TH)|
|Points||64 (35TH)||Points||85 (7TH)|
|Shots||325 (3RD)||Shots||367 (1ST)|
|Ice time||19:38 (37TH)||Ice time||21:21 (7TH)|
|Plus / Minus||-20 (579TH)||Plus / Minus||+24 (11TH)|
So what happened?
The plus-minus tells the story. Kessel developed a 200-foot game, or at least decided to compete in his own end. He wasn’t always the last player back and unlike Ovechkin he didn’t want to be installed on the point on the power play.
Kessel’s average night’s work, despite his workhorse performance during the Leafs recent string of injuries is up only 38 seconds or one short shift from last year. Ovechkin is down 2:34 a night. He is doing much less with less time. Kessel is doing far more with about the same amount of ice time.
Kessel’s game has been a study in subtle changes. He trusts the players he has been paired with. Returned to health after a terrible run of injuries, Joffrey Lupul has been superb and his ability to go to the dirty areas and distribute the puck with the skill of a centreman has kick-started Kessel. Ovechkin, on the other hand, hasn’t enjoyed the same chemistry with his linemates Nicklas Backstrom and Troy Brouwer.
Mostly, it comes down to coachability. Kessel has been content to carry the puck less, to distribute it more and exploit his passing, one of the better elements of his skill set. He continues to utilize his speed to beat defenders but the other element of the goalscorer’s toolkit, the ability to find a route to the puck around the net, makes him harder to defend.
Ovechkin has stubbornly refused to give up his spot near the left wall for a one-timer. His shots are being blocked more often.
This is the part of the show with the disclaimer. No one expects Phil Kessel to score 60 goals. Ovechkin is too good a player to continue this way. Ovechkin has been one of the leagues’ premier players since the year he arrived. Kessel is only now tasting that kind of success.
But Phil Kessel and Alex Ovechkin are once again proving that once the train gets rolling – in either direction – it can be awfully hard to stop.