History Says Unlikely, But Possible Alex Ovechkin Can Return To Form

As we all wonder about what has gone on with Alex Ovechkin this season, a post by friend-of-the-site Jamie Mottram on Mister Irrelevant caught my eye this afternoon. Mottram did some research on Ovechkin's plight and found that there's some evidence that this season is not an anomaly, but rather, a beginning to a downward trend in his career. 

As Jamie writes:

Of the top 25 goal scorers in NHL history*, none had 50-goal seasons both before and after dipping below 35 for a full season.** None as in no one.    

Mottram's research was admittedly limited, and he defined a "full season" as one in which the player took part in at least 75 games. Therefore, I decided to extend the research and look at this more closely. In the end, while Ovechkin's dip is troubling, a return to form is not out of the question. I decided to look at all the players who have scored 50 goals or more in a season and look at what they did once they dipped below Mottram's threshold. I did decide to account for injuries, so instead of limiting it to people who played a full season, I instead went with a goals per game average. Fifty goals in 82 games, which is the threshold, works out to just under 0.61 goals a game. 

How many players returned to that 0.61 goals per game threshold after dipping below 35 goals in a season? Eighty-eight different players (13 active) have scored at least 50 goals in an NHL season. Of those 88, 14, or just under 16 percent, have dipped below the 35-goal mark and then returned to post at least one season averaging at least 0.61 goals per game. Those 14 are as follows:

Maurice Richard: The game's first great scorer had just 27 goals at age 24, a year after posting 50. He, of course, responded with three more seasons (ages: 25, 28, 29) of being well above the 0.61 goals per game threshold.

Pavel Bure: The well-traveled goal-scoring machine had an early dip in the lockout-shortened year of 1994/95, scoring just 20 goals in 44 games. This isn't the best example, because that's slightly above a 35-goal pace, but it's still worth noting. Bure then went on to score 51 goals in 1997/98, 58 in 1999/00 and 59 in 2000/01.

Jaromir Jagr: An example cited by Mottram as one who just missed, but he still applies. In 2001/02, his first year with the Capitals, a 29-year-old Jagr scored 31 goals in 69 games. Four years later, as a member of the New York Rangers in 2005/06, he rebounded for 54 goals in 82 games.

Dino Ciccarelli: The former Capitals star that was just elected into the NHL Hall of Fame scored just 15 goals in 51 games in his fifth season in the league at age 24, three seasons after scoring 51 goals in a season. Ciccarelli then scored 52 goals in 1986/87, at the age of 26, and then 41 goals in just 67 games the following year.

Mike Gartner: Another Capitals legend, Gartner scored 50 goals at age 25, then dipped to 33 four years later when he was traded to Minnesota. He scored 49 goals in 79 games, good for 0.62 a game, as a member of the Rangers two years later.

Pierre Larouche: The well-traveled Larouche burst onto the scene with 53 goals as a 20-year old for the Penguins in 1975/76, then immediately dipped to just 29 goals the following year. As it turned out, the 20-year old season wasn't a fluke. Larouche topped the 0.61 goals per game mark three more times in his career (50 goals at age 24, 48 goals in 77 games at age 28 and 20 goals in just 28 games at age 30)

Blaine Stoughton: This example is a little weird, so bear with me here. Stoughton played eight seasons in the NHL, with three seasons in the World Hockey Association in the middle. In his first season in the WHA, he scored 52 goals at the age of 23. Two very subpar seasons followed, and he then jumped to the NHL, where he scored at least 0.61 goals per game four different times, notching 56 goals in 1979/80 and 52 in 1981/82.

Mark Messier: Messier had three seasons when he was above the 0.61-goal threshold. He did it when he was 21 and 22, then did it again at age 35 for the Rangers.

Reggie Leach: The Flyers' superstar of the 1970s dipped to 32 goals in 77 games in 1976/77, at the age of 26. Three years later, at age 29, he rebounded for a 50-goal season.

Joe Sakic: The sublime Colorado Avalanche star had 51 goals in 1995/96, then experienced a down year the next season with just 22 goals in 65 games. Four years later, at the age of 31, Sakic had 54 goals in leading the Avalanche to the Stanley Cup.

Theo Fleury: The troubled star had 51 goals at age 22, then dipped to 31 the next year. He rebounded (sort of) at age 26 with 29 goals (0.62 a game) in the strike-shortened 1994/95 season.

Mike Bullard: Bullard scored 51 goals at age 22 in 1983/84, then dipped to 32 goals the next year. He rebounded in 1987/88 with 48 goals in 79 games, just barely reaching the 0.61 goals per game threshold.

Rick MacLeish: MacLeish scored 50 goals with the Flyers at age 23 in 1972/73, then dipped to 32 the next year. Three years later, he rebounded with 49 goals in 79 games, good for 0.62 a game.

Bobby Hull: Perhaps the most hopeful example for Ovechkin, though slightly flawed. Hull scored just 26 goals in 52 games at the age of 23, which is above a 35-goal pace, but still fits the criteria. Hull went on to score an average of 0.61 goals per game a whopping 13 more times in his career. 

Fourteen of 88 is still not a good number, but at least it is better than zero.

(Major HT to Hockey-Reference.com for the statistics).

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