Washington general manager Brian MacLellan had his hand on the door, with every chance to slam it shut. But he deliberately left it open, just a crack.
“Maybe at some point if there’s a legitimate hockey deal,” was his response to a question about whether or not the Capitals would deal their captain and face of the franchise, Alex Ovechkin.
OK — those weren’t his only words. To be fair, the quote was much longer:
“People are looking for a major solution to what we have going on,” MacLellan said in his belated, season-ending, state of the franchise media address. “I think part of it is they watch certain things in his game, and then it shows up and they say that’s not acceptable. But he’s a big part of our franchise, a big part of our history. He’s been a big part of where we’re at as an organization and just to casually say, ‘Let’s trade him?’ For what? For who?
“I don’t think it makes sense from an organizational point of view. Maybe at some point if there’s a legitimate hockey deal that came available, but I don’t know if that’s where we’re at right now.”
So, you’re saying there’s a chance?
As long a MacLellan is going to leave the door open, let us walk you through what the prospects of having Ovechkin on the open market might look like.
First, some facts:
• Ovechkin, who turns 32 in September, is the Capitals captain and highest-paid player, with an average annual value of $9.5 million for the next four seasons. According to Capfriendly.com, Ovechkin has a modified no-trade clause: He can list 10 teams that he can not be traded to, leaving 20 destinations open for a deal.
• This would be an owner-approved trade, and Caps owner Ted Leonsis owes his loyalty to the player whose presence led hockey’s turnaround in D.C. Ovechkin has made Leonsis not just millions but quite possibly billions along the way. My bet: Leonsis retires Ovechkin in Washington, years from now.
Here’s what Washington’s Ovechkin experiment has taught hockey: Your best player can’t be a winger. By extension, your most expensive one shouldn’t be a winger either. Especially one who doesn’t really make the players around him better.
So, if Ovechkin — whose game is in decline — were to go to a legitimate contender, one of two things would have to occur: Washington would have to retain a good percentage of his salary, and/or take back a Dustin Brown, a Marian Hossa, a Dion Phaneuf… an aging player with at least four years remaining on his contract.
That doesn’t help the Capitals at all.
So let’s get creative.
The man who drafted Ovechkin is the new GM in Las Vegas. He might love the idea of having a legitimate NHL star in his lineup full of cast-offs, and winning a Cup in the next four years is out of the equation in Vegas.
Building a fan base is.
McPhee could barter with draft picks — Washington doesn’t have one until Round 4 of the June 23-24 draft in Chicago — and could offer up a couple of his best NHL Expansion Draft picks, like a defenceman from Anaheim, or a player MacLellan likes from someone else. But it says here, this move would mean Vegas is more interested in selling tickets than building a winner.
Then there is New Jersey.
What about a sign-and-trade for Ilya Kovalchuk? Kovalchuk is believed to be shopping for a deal around the NHL, but the Devils own his rights. It would be complex, but perhaps there is a Russian roulette to be had between the Caps and Devils?
The NHL’s new economics, where the cap only rises artificially if the players choose to exercise their five per cent inflator, really puts the kibosh on swapping a $9.5 million player. Even an embryonic team like Edmonton or Toronto is looking at salary issues in the relatively near future. Adding a big ticket is entirely out of the question for them, while a place like Arizona or Carolina might have the cap space but likely not the wherewithal to use it.
And Ovechkin, by MacLellan’s own admission, is one of those aging players that is slowing down while the game gets faster around him. We’ve seen what happens when a player loses a stride — his production plummets.
With 33 goals in 82 games, Ovechkin’s goal scoring sunk to a career low in 2016-17. What happens from here?
“He’s getting in the low 30s,” the Caps GM said. “I think he’s going to have to think of ways he can evolve into a player that still has a major impact on the game. The game’s getting faster. He’s going to have to train in a different way – a more speed way instead of a power way. He’s gonna have to make adjustments to stay (relevant) in the game.”
The only thing about Ovechkin that is not trending downward is his salary.
Truly, it makes any trade out of Washington nearly impossible.