About a month-and-a-half ago, I commented that Alex Ovechkin has been used a bit differently than he has in years past, so I wanted to quickly revisit that post...
If you'll remember, I predicted that his O-Zone Start % would bump up in the following games, bringing him more to a level where he'd be closer to the top 3 on the Capitals in Zone Start percentage rather than in the bottom 3 (among regular forwards, aka forwards who'd played 20 games to that point, 30 games to this point). Here is where he was at the time of that article (December 8th):
Let's take a look at where we are now (January 22nd):
So much for that.
Last time we were discussing this, George E. Ays suggested that a good way of looking at Ovechkin's Zone Finish was to keep in mind that, in general (and something Gabe has noted in the past), your Zone Start and Finish percentages will gravitate towards 50%. In other words, the higher your start percentage, the more likely it is that your finish percentage will be substantially lower, regardless of your talent level. In that same vein, the lower your percentage, the higher likelihood that your finish will reflect a positive differential. Bruce McCurdy did a great article on expected zone finishes for the various levels of zone starts, and what is pretty clear is that you shouldn't be quite as startled by Marcus Johansson's differential as the number suggests (though you should be a little put off, since he really should be finishing almost 3% higher).
In Ovechkin's case (and by McCurdy's calculations), Ovechkin should be finishing around 50.8% of the time in the offensive zone. He's not there yet, but it is worth noting that being 1.5% below where you should be is at least an improvement over being nearly 3.5% below as he was before. Even though scoring-wise he hasn't done particularly better, it does appear that he's doing a little better in terms of (to paraphrase George) moving the right way. It is worth adding that there's a pretty strong correlation between higher Zone Start% and positive Corsi, so a drop like Ovechkin's could certainly affect his offensive numbers.
I alluded to this a bit in the previous article (singling out Alexander Semin's poor differential), but across the board forwards are moving in the wrong direction beyond their expected finishes, and this can very likely be sinking Ovechkin in his own zone more frequently when his shift comes up. Take a look again at last year's numbers:
A majority of these forwards (per McCurdy's expected finishes) are doing what they're supposed to do, if not more. Your tough-minutes forwards are moving play out of their zone for high-positive differentials, and a majority of the forwards with favourable zone starts might be coming off when the faceoff's in their zone, but not extraordinarily out of line with their expected finishes. In fact, guys like Eric Fehr, Nicklas Backstrom, and Ovechkin were doing incredibly well in that regard.
This year, it seems like almost none of the forwards are doing their jobs outside of Brooks Laich, Jason Chimera, and maybe Backstrom and Ovechkin. That hasn't translated well to the offense, and I'd have a little bit of concern that you had a few guys playing over their heads last year. That being said, Ovechkin's shooting could (and by Gabe's estimation, should) stand to improve, and if Semyon Varlamov can stay healthy the goaltending might be able to steal a few games as well. This is definitely not the same team performance-wise we saw in Washington last year, but there are still a lot of weird things that might sort themselves out before the end of the season. And for what it's worth, there are worse things in the world than having a few problems and still sitting at 5th in the Eastern Conference. You could be Evgeni Nabokov.
P.S. I watched the Rangers-Capitals game earlier this week and kept track of where Ovechkin was starting and finishing his shifts at even-strength, and as if on cue he was still starting a lot of shifts (actually at a bit higher rate than above, ~60% for that game) in his own zone. His teammates benefitted by getting getting a lot of the O-Zone starts, in part because Ovechkin was moving the puck in the right direction. The talent is definitely there, but you could see that his good opportunities were lacking.