That Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin is a franchise player and here’s why


(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Alex Ovechkin has won three MVP awards, been named the league’s best player by his peers three times and led the league in goals four times — including each of the past two years — so it was surprising that not one of the “dozen NHL executives, coaches and players” polled by ESPN’s Craig Custance cast a vote for Ovechkin when asked in a July 30 story: If you were starting a franchise from scratch and could choose from any current player in the NHL, who would be your top choice?

Here is how the voting panel “made up of four current team executives (assistant GM or GM), one former GM, four current head coaches, one respected assistant coach and a player from each conference” cast their ballots. It is important to note that the instructions were  “to pick the five best players to build a franchise around,” and not take into account any other factors (team, contract, etc.). Votes were “assigned point values for each vote to come up with an overall ranking.”

  1. Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks
  2. Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins
  3. Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings
  4. Ryan Getzlaf, Anaheim Ducks
  5. Shea Weber, Nashville Predators
  6. Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche
  7. Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings
  8. John Tavares, New York Islanders
  9. Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning
  10. Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens
  11. Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins
  12. PK Subban, Montreal Canadiens
  13. Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins

There should be an emphasis placed on having an elite center like Sidney Crosby (considered the league’s premier player) and Jonathan Toews (a former Selke winner as the NHL’s best defensive forward and two-time Cup champion), but should you really want the remainder of Ryan Getzlaf’s career over Ovechkin’s? Or 36-year-old Pavel Datsuyk, who received a vote but wasn’t among the top 13 listed?

Let’s take a look using the Simple Projection System, which is an offshoot of Tom Tango’s Marcel the Monkey Forecasting System, “the most basic forecasting system you can have.” There are thee benefits to using this type of system:

  1. It uses three years of NHL data, with the most recent season weighted heavier.
  2. It regresses towards the mean.
  3. It has an age factor, so players falling out of their prime will be reduced accordingly.

The NHL data used below is Point Shares, based on Bill James win shares system. Point Shares seeks to assign the contribution each player makes to a win. The higher the number, the more impact that player has. It’s not perfect (no all-in-one metric is) but it gives a good barometer of player worth. Here are the top 10 forwards in 2013-14 point shares and any end of season accolades they may have won:


For the purposes of this exercise, this metric passes the sniff test.

Back to Ovechkin as an example of how the system works. If his most recent points shares are weighted higher than the preceding two seasons using a 3-2-1 system, it would come up with [(10.2 * 3) + (8.0 * 2) + 8.7] divided by six for a weighted average of 9.2. Then weight his TOI the same way, calculate the weighted sum of point shares for a league average player playing Ovechkin’s TOI, then scale that figure to 1,000 minutes. After that, project his point shares per 20 minutes and then apply an age adjustment, penalizing players 28 years old and older for being outside their prime. Then that gets repeated for each simulated playing year.

Here are the results for the forwards receiving votes in the ESPN poll, plus Ovechkin:

Nathan MacKinnon, the reigning rookie of the year, is a solid choice to start a franchise. After scoring 24 goals and 63 points in 82 regular season games in his first season, he was a near-unanimous choice for the Calder Trophy, receiving 130 first-place votes out of the 137 ballots cast.

Steven Stamkos and John Tavares are two of the league’s best, young centers. And while they don’t have the résumés of Crosby or Toews (yet), their combination of youth and skill make them attractive building blocks for our new, hypothetical franchise as well.

On the other hand, neither Evgeni Malkin, Getzlaf or Datsyuk project to have a better career than Ovechkin, yet all three received votes in the ESPN poll. Yes, Datsyuk is a center – and a magician on the ice — but he is also 36 years old. How many successful franchises are built on the back of an aging pivot whose best days are behind him? And before you counter with “how many successful franchises are built on a enigmatic one-dimensional scorer who gives little regard to defense?” keep in mind that Ovechkin is still in his prime, and clearly the most dynamic offensive force in the game. You would have to argue Datsyuk is among the top five active NHL centers.

The top franchise forward if holding an open draft today? Alex Galchenyuk. And before you scoff at that selection, keep in mind the 20-year-old center has played more than 100 games in the NHL over his first two seasons while accumulating 6.5 point shares – and that includes the lockout-shortened 2013 campaign. In the history of the NHL, only 23 forwards have had as many or more Point Shares while playing more than 100 games over their first two seasons in the league before the age of 20. If the 2013 season wasn’t just 48 games long, Galchenyuk would likely be even higher on that list. Here is the rest of the top 10:

Granted, this approach is very simplistic, but it does help put these conversations and hypotheticals in proper perspective.

Neil Greenberg analyzes advanced sports statistics for the Fancy Stats blog and prefers to be called a geek rather than a nerd.
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Neil Greenberg · August 11

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