Another year and another early, disappointing playoff exit for Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals. This agonizing loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins was maybe the width of a stick shaft away from playing out differently.
In a highlight that will replay over and over again, Marc-Andre Fleury’s butt-end save on an Ovechkin one-timer in the second period was the difference between a 1-1 tie and an eventual shutout. In an alternate timeline, perhaps Washington gets a lucky bounce in their favour and there’s a different result.
But the hockey gods, again, were having none of it.
After the loss — heck, even before it was official as time ticked off the clock — the Ovechkin takes began. At the start of next season Ovechkin, one of the greatest goal scorers in NHL history, will be 32 years old and coming off his lowest goal-scoring total since 2010-11.
So…should the Capitals trade Ovechkin?
Here are some pros and cons to the idea.
• When looking for positives about trading Ovechkin, the discussion begins with the salary cap. He comes with a cap hit of $9.538 million, one of just six players making $9 million or more against the cap, and he’s the oldest of those. As far as actual salary, Ovechkin will be one of 10 players earning $10 million next season. Shea Weber and Corey Perry are among those top earners and the only ones older than Ovechkin — by one and four months, respectively.
Now, if you trade Ovechkin, you’re going to have to take salary back because no team other than expansion Vegas (who has nothing substantial to offer at the moment) can afford to take on the full amount under the cap. Assume the Capitals are able to get one or two younger and cheaper assets as value for Ovechkin, plus another team’s bad contract to balance the books and maybe Washington comes out $3-4 million lighter on the salary cap.
Perhaps that wiggle room gives them some maneuverability to re-sign RFAs Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky to their raises, while also keeping a pending UFA, or signing another one. But in that scenario, you’re not making up for the loss of a generational talent.
Then again, that’s not a major concern if you think trading him is the best option.
• Another reason for trading Ovechkin is culture change. He’s been the captain of this team since 2010 and the centrepiece of their plan since he was drafted first overall in 2004. In all, it’s brought the Caps six Round 2 eliminations, three Round 1 ousters and a couple whiffs of the playoffs altogether.
This column by Barry Svrluga in the Washington Post goes over in detail how the common denominator behind all of Washington’s disappointments in the past decade is Ovechkin. If culture and leadership are factors you believe should weigh in these decisions, Svrluga aptly points out that while Ovechkin is the one wearing the ‘C’, the Caps have nonetheless spent time and money acquiring veterans to provide the leadership.
Moving Ovechkin means making someone else the captain, something you just can’t do while he’s still in D.C. As long as he’s a Cap, this is Ovechkin’s team.
• From Day 1, Ovechkin has been the centre of how the Caps have been marketed. He’s a superstar and a fun personality and The Guy who could lift the Capitals back to relevancy and into contender status.
Trading him creates a void in that department and would leave the franchise without an easily marketable star. That maybe isn’t a huge factor in a market like Toronto, or Montreal, or Boston, but it is here. And whether those other places need it or not, it’s still the kind of presence every team strives to get.
“That in itself would make it incredibly difficult to make the decision to try to move him,” Nick Kypreos said on Sportsnet the FAN 590 Thursday morning. “He was the centrepiece that in many ways saved the franchise or gave it that extra shot to move in a different direction. Business is one thing and winning is another, (they’ve been) very successful in one way, but unfortunately has not been able to get the job done in the other direction of trying to bring a championship to the D.C. area.”
Remember, before Ovechkin got to Washington the Caps had five playoff game wins in six seasons and even tried it with Jaromir Jagr, another standout and marketable star, for a couple years before that relationship ended in disaster and disdain.
Does the team owe anything to Ovechkin to keep him and take this to its conclusion, whatever that may be? Do they owe that to the fans? How would most Capitals supporters react if the team moved such a popular player? Most Canadiens fans were outraged when Marc Bergevin traded P.K. Subban and it’s not as though they were winning Cups or making multiple finals.
• What are you going to reasonably get for a player on the wrong side of 30 making as much as Ovechkin does in a cap league? He has a modified no-trade clause that allows him to list 10 teams he will not accept being moved to, so the market shrinks by one-third right away.
The Golden Knights would want him for the same reason Washington wanted him in the first place. The Arizona Coyotes might want him also, but are either of these destinations an option? Would any team give up its best prospect or more, and if not, what are the Capitals getting out of it other than some more uncertainty and, you’d think, a step backwards?
Also consider that if Ovechkin is moved now, it’s not exactly at a time that favours the seller. Playoff disappointment aside, he dropped to 33 goals in the regular season, which we’ve seen before, but he also scored more power play goals than even strength goals, which we haven’t.
For the first time in his career, Ovechkin took a noticeable and deep dive in 5-on-5 production, which is worrisome for what comes next. On the one hand, that could mean you trade him before real decline becomes more obvious. On the other, if you would consider moving him, perhaps you want to see if you can do it after a stronger regular season.
We’ve been down this road before with Ovechkin, but as he hits the back half of his career, the Capitals face more cap constraints, and push in more of their chips to win now, there is a window where it maybe makes sense for this to happen.
Under it all you have a player who seems as important to the business side of the franchise as the on-ice impact he has, and an owner who has been nothing but supportive of his favourite player. No other team owner has encouraged a player’s desire to go to the 2018 Olympics with or without NHL participation, as Leonsis has with Ovechkin. Because of that connection, a split seems highly unlikely.
Even more than that, though, the greatest value the Capitals might be able to get out of all this is to take the Ovechkin-led core to its logical conclusion. The San Jose Sharks, a popular comparable, had for years failed to break through with a Joe Thornton/Patrick Marleau-led roster. Yes, they had a couple conference finals to show for their efforts but they only won one game in those, so the difference really isn’t all that much. Finally, the Sharks got to the Cup final last year with those players.
The bottom line is you don’t tear down a team like this, or trade away the kind of player every team would like to have for a decade-plus — especially if you’re going to get a pennies on the dollar return.
Ovechkin has four years left on his contract, and that’s how much longer the Caps need to keep going for it with him in the lineup.