The best player without a Stanley Cup win? Alex Ovechkin

Tied 3–3, in an overtime period just minutes removed from a last gasp equalizer from Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin took the puck last night and you just knew he was going to score.

It’s just one more stop on an already remarkable season. He passed Sergei Federov to become the highest scoring Russian player of all time in November. Now he’s all but certain to reach the 500-goal plateau — maybe against Ottawa tonight—a mark accomplished by only a handful of players in NHL history. (Disclosure: It’s a pretty good time to be a Capitals fan).

As he approaches this achievement, it’s worth thinking about how remarkable it is in historical context. At just 30 years old, with (probably) several more seasons of top-level hockey left in him, Ovechkin seems a good bet for several more record-setting achievements, not to mention a place in the Hall of Fame.

But how many of these achievements would he trade in for a Stanley Cup win? The Capitals have yet to make it past the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals during his career, with a few too many seven-game knockouts in their wake. But with the Capitals in first place, a goaltender playing out of his mind, and one of the deepest rosters in recent history, this season seems like Ovechkin’s best chance so far to cement his legacy.

Before the rest of this season plays out, where does he stand among those other players who haven’t won the Cup? He’s hardly the first great player to take his time getting there. Ray Bourque waited 22 years, and Luc Robitaille won it in his 16th season. But it’s certainly possible he’ll never win it.

You’ll start to see this more often in the coming years. Modern players are disadvantaged because of the smaller size of the league throughout most of its history (in the Original Six era). When your team is one of six, you’re significantly more likely to get a Cup win in your career than if your team is one of thirty (unless you were unfortunate enough to play for the 1941–94 Rangers).

Ovechkin’s Credentials

Possibly the fairest method of identifying the best player across all positions is All-Star Team nominations (not to be confused with John Scott). Ovechkin has been named a first-team all-star seven times in the past ten complete seasons. Even Wayne Gretzky was only named to eight in his entire career. Not to mention that Ovechkin is the most decorated all-star recipient yet to win a Stanley Cup.

He’s one of the most prolific trophy winners in NHL history. Among players who haven’t won the Cup, he is the only multiple-time Hart Trophy winner, and the only three-time (or more) Lindsay Award winner.

Ovechkin was also a Caldur Trophy-winning rookie, a Ross Trophy winner, and is a five-time Richard Trophy winner. He’s one of very few to win all of these trophies together, and (naturally) the only one to not win the Cup.

Of course, you don’t win all of these trophies without the stats to back it up.

Ovechkin has the sixth-most goals in league history for players in their first 11 seasons, trailing only Wayne Gretzky, Mike Bossy, Mario Lemieux, Brett Hull, and Jari Kurri. It’s worth noting that all of those players were active during the high scoring 1980’s — when goals per game were among the highest in NHL history. On an adjusted basis, using Hockey Reference’s methodology as a model, Ovechkin leads them all. Looking at point shares, another metric that more equally weights positions, Ovechkin has the 5th-most among players in their first 11 seasons.

Examining the Competition

Who else could compete for this … undesired honor? Sure there were guys like Gartner, Stastny, LaFontaine, and Sundin who racked up a lot of stats, but were rarely recognized as the best at their positions. Instead, I tried to focus on those players who were nominated for both all-star teams and trophies—the mark of the superior player.

Marcel Dionne: He’s one of the most prolific scorers in NHL history (5th all-time in goals and 6th all-time in points), and one of only 2 multiple-time Lindsay Award winners to not win a Stanley Cup (Ovechkin included). You’ll see him ranked first on several of these lists.

Joe Thornton: One of only 11 Hart Trophy winners to not win a Stanley Cup (Ovechkin included), and may surpass 1,000 assists within the next couple years. I chose Thornton over other Hart winners who either played too briefly in the early parts of the league’s history (sorry Herb Gardiner) or don’t quite match up to Thornton’s career-long accomplishments (sorry Henrik Sedin).

Jarome Iginla: Another player whose career impact is significantly improved through the lens of adjusted goals, he ranks sixth all-time in this category. He’s also a multiple-time Richard Trophy winner but, oddly enough, only five out of 12 Richard winners have won a Stanley Cup.

Tony Esposito: The pioneer of the butterfly style of goalkeeping, Esposito is the only multiple-time Vezina Trophy winner to not win a Stanley Cup. He’s also a 3-time all-star, 7th in the all-time wins list, a Caldur-winning rookie, and just missed out on a Hart win in 1970 to Bobby Orr.

Erik Karlsson: Scoff if you must, Karlsson is still pretty young but he’s the only multiple-time Norris Trophy winner to not win the Cup. And based on the way his career is going, with just one assist shy of the league lead, expect to see more from him before too long.

While these are all great (or rising, in the case of Karlsson) players, none can compare to the speed at which Ovechkin has reached his achievements. If Ovechkin continues to play for as long as Dionne, Thornton, and Iginla have, there’s no question that he will far surpass their statistical accomplishments.

I would rate Marcel Dionne as the closest player to Ovechkin in this analysis. He was equally prolific in his early career in terms of goals scored, and had more even-strength goals as compared to Ovechkin who has relied more heavily on power plays for his scoring output. Dionne was even a hair’s length away from a Hart Trophy win in 1979, just losing out to Gretzky. But taking both statistics and trophies into consideration, I think Ovechkin has a better case. He has more of just about every recognition, yet the same lack of playoff credentials.

As a Capitals fan, however, I’m hoping he doesn’t need to be recognized as such for much longer.

Disagree? Let me know who you think is the best player instead! Leave a response, or get in touch.