(Patrick McDermott, Getty Images)

One of the unexpected storylines in this year’s playoffs has been Alex Ovechkin’s ice time. Previously, Ovechkin has been the prototypical workhorse for the Capitals, taking long shifts and playing big minutes. There are some suggesting that Dale Hunter has put Ovechkin out to pasture, frequently putting him on the ice for just 15 minutes or even less per game.

What I’m curious about is how Hunter is using Ovechkin. It’s one thing to talk about his ice time being down, but it’s another to see what situations Ovechkin is being used in and whether this is the best use of his skillset. It’s worth exploring whether the reduction in ice time is limiting Ovechkin or whether it is putting him in the best possible position to succeed.

Early in his career, Ovechkin was renowned for his long shifts. Even in his rookie season, he averaged over 21 minutes in ice time per game, with an average shift length of 54 seconds. This only increased, to the point that Ovechkin was averaging over 23 minutes per game, with his average shift lasting over a minute.

His ice time started to decrease last season, but took its most significant drop during the regular season this year, as he averaged fewer than 20 minutes per game for the first time in his career. He still led all Capitals’ forwards in ice time, however, and in the final games of the season, as the Capitals were battling for the final playoff spot in the East, Ovechkin generally played big minutes, including over 26 minutes in a game against the Minnesota Wild.

In the playoffs, however, Ovechkin’s ice time has taken a nose dive. He’s still averaging just short of 20 minutes per game, but that includes the 6 overtime games the Capitals have played so far in the postseason. The 35:14 he played in game three’s triple overtime against the Rangers, for instance, spikes his average ice time significantly. The game prior significantly sunk his average ice time, as he played a career-low 13:36, yet still scored the game-winning goal.

His average ice time of 19:46 places him fourth among Capitals forwards, behind Nicklas Backstrom, Brooks Laich, and Marcus Johansson, and ninth among all Capitals skaters. Looking just at even-strength ice time, Ovechkin bumps up to second among Capitals forwards, as Laich plays significant minutes on the penalty kill and Johansson has spent time on both the penalty kill and powerplay. In fact, Ovechkin’s average even-strength ice time during the playoffs is only a few seconds off from what it was during the regular season, though the addition of long overtimes must be kept in mind.

So Ovechkin has had a decrease in even-strength ice time, though just a minor one. He still leads all Capitals in powerplay ice time, where he is averaging a similar amount to what he played during the regular season, though lower than previous seasons due to the decline in penalties called since the lockout. Of the total minutes on the powerplay the Capitals have received during the playoffs, Ovechkin has played 78% of them. His usage on the powerplay, then, hasn’t really changed.

What’s interesting is his time at even-strength. Ovechkin leads the Capitals in offensive zone start percentage: ignoring neutral zone starts, Ovechkin has started 58.3% of his shifts at even strength in the offensive zone. That’s nearly 5 percentage points higher than his next closest teammate, Mike Knuble. The difference between the two is that Knuble plays under 10 minutes per game.

What this really means is that Ovechkin is being kept out of the defensive zone as much as possible. Ovechkin has 50 zone starts in the defensive zone at even-strength. Compare that to Jay Beagle, who has 114, or Brooks Laich, who has 98. Beagle and Laich are right behind Ovechkin in terms of even-strength minutes, but they’re a completely different type of minute, particularly in Beagle’s case. Beagle’s offensive zone start percentage is 28.8%: the vast, vast majority of his shifts are in his own end of the ice.

Ovechkin’s offensive zone start percentage of 58.3% is almost exactly equivalent to his two most successful regular seasons in 2007-08 and 2008-09. One big difference, however, is in the level of competition he’s facing. Hunter has not been shy about putting Ovechkin up against the opposition’s top lines, as he’s second on the Capitals in Quality of Competition (as measured using Relative Corsi). Brooks Laich leads the team, but Ovechkin is right behind him. When he’s been on the ice, Ovechkin has been playing against the other team’s top offensive producers.

Unfortunately, this has meant that Ovechkin has been buried in terms of possession statistics. The only player worse on the team in Corsi and Relative Corsi is Brooks Laich, who has the additional excuse of more defensive zone starts to go with his tough quality of competition. Ovechkin has been starting mainly in the offensive zone and is still getting buried.

Cam Charron has already pointed out that the main reason Ovechkin’s minutes are down is situational more than anything: when the Capitals have the lead, Hunter sends out his most defensively responsible players; when they’re down, he sends out Ovechkin and other more offensive players. A guy like Nicklas Backstrom, who has shown some responsibility at both ends of the ice, gets more ice time overall.

It seems that when Ovechkin is on the ice, he still isn’t quite being used right. Getting him more offensive zone starts is a good first step. In fact, getting him even more and taking them away from his less offensively capable players might be even better. But the next step is to get Ovechkin on the ice against the weakest competition possible, as his defensive weaknesses are still being exploited and the Capitals have less of the puck when he’s on the ice.

Chris Kreider is expected to skate alongside Ryan Callahan and Derek Stepan. No slight to those players, but Hunter needs to get Ovechkin out against that line in the offensive zone as much as possible.