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|Trade Alex Ovechkin? Here’s why the Capitals would almost certainly never do it.
25 ìàÿ 2017 ãîäà. Washington Post. By Isabelle Khurshudyan
A popular suggestion followed the familiar May postseason exit for the Washington Capitals: Trade Alex Ovechkin.
It was a radical, if reflexive, proposal proffered by pundits as a remedy to the multiple second-round playoff losses suffered by the franchise during Ovechkin’s 12 years on the roster.
“I really think it’s time for the Washington Capitals to look at moving Alex Ovechkin,” ESPN’s Barry Melrose told Scott Van Pelt.
“I think the Ovechkin experiment has to be reviewed,” NBC Sports Network’s Mike Milbury said after the Capitals’ Game 7 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. “Lots of decisions to make. He tries hard, I just don’t think he’s a heady enough hockey player to get it done in key moments.”
To date, there is no indication the franchise has, is or will consider trading the player that has helped turn Verizon Center from a sparsely-attended rink into a raucous (and profitable), sold-out arena, brimming to the rafters with red-clad Capitals fans for the past 364 home games. But the question raised by Melrose and Milbury, among others, begs a closer look at the mechanics of such a maneuver. While it’s easy to talk about trading Ovechkin, dealing a franchise’s most popular player with a $9.5 million salary cap hit for the next four years is a nearly impossible transaction in practice, even if the Capitals were interested in such a move.
Washington will almost certainly not deal Ovechkin this summer, but if the organization ever did reach a point where that was a consideration, the process for carrying out such a trade starts with a blessing from the owner and ends with the question of whether the Capitals would truly benefit from dealing one of the greatest goal-scorers in league history.
“I think they should consider it, and I think it’s a really tough deal to make,” said Sportsnet’s Doug MacLean, a former general manager for the Columbus Blue Jackets. “I wouldn’t want to be the guy making the deal. It’s easy for me when I’m in the media to talk about it now, but as a GM, I wouldn’t be talking about it so easily.”
Step 1: Ownership approval
MacLean said that he often checked with the team owner on most trades, the exception being deals that involved just minor-league players. If Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan decided that trading Ovechkin was in the best interest of the team, he’d first have to discuss it with owner Ted Leonsis.
“You don’t even consider it until you talk to the owner and get his approval,” MacLean said.
In the real world, the deal would probably die there. While the Capitals have changed coaches and general managers during Ovechkin’s tenure in Washington, he and Leonsis have been constants, developing a relationship over that time. “That seems to be the new wave now, that the franchise players and the owners become friends, which is really great for the GM by the way,” MacLean quipped sarcastically.
Ovechkin’s marketability has also contributed to a consistently sold-out Verizon Center, and his arrival ushered in a new look for the team with the “Rock the Red” campaign. His jersey was the seventh most purchased of any player this past season, and replacing him with anything less than a similar star player would carry economic consequences.
His on-ice contributions are still significant too, even with a statistical downturn the past season. He tied for the team lead in goals with 33 and his 36 assists were the most he’s finished with since the 2010-11 season.
But for the sake of seeing this scenario through, let’s say Leonsis agreed that winning a Stanley Cup is paramount and the only way to do so was by trading away Ovechkin.
Even if the wheels started turning here, they’d immediately strike a sizable bump.
Step 2: Finding a trade partner
The next obstacle to trading Ovechkin is the limited list of suitors. Ovechkin has a modified no-trade clause, so he can name 10 teams he doesn’t want to be traded to. That leaves 21 teams, and most of them won’t be able to afford his hefty salary cap hit. Some teams might have the financial means but are in a rebuilding mode, so taking on a 31-year-old winger in exchange for picks, prospects or both wouldn’t make sense.
“What’s transpired here with the cap system is, you’re lucky to get your own guy signed, let alone going out and bringing in the big guys from other organizations,” MacLean said.
“Without expansion coming into the league, I would say it would be impossible,” said TSN’s Craig Button, a former general manager of the Calgary Flames.
The Vegas Golden Knights, preparing to play their first NHL season this fall, are the most obvious trade partner in this hypothetical deal for Ovechkin, possessing cap space and likely craving star power to drive interest and ticket sales. In an expansion draft on June 21, the Golden Knights will select one player from each team, and just like any other league franchise, Vegas will be expected to hit the salary cap floor of $54 million. There’s also familiarity between Ovechkin and Golden Knights General Manager George McPhee, who drafted Ovechkin when he was with the Capitals.
“But does he get you to where you want to get to in four years time?” Button said. “Maybe the decision is, ‘Listen, we get a star player coming into Vegas, and we can work off of this, and Alex will be open to that.’ And at the same, George can go and just quietly build through drafting and developing and also have a real marketable star. If you were making that case, it’s a solid plan. But what are you giving up? And Washington has to ask themselves what are they getting to do this?”
Step 3: Is the return favorable?
If the Capitals just wanted to dump Ovechkin’s $9.5 million cap hit, they could expose him in the expansion draft. But losing Ovechkin for nothing in return would be foolish because the team will still have to find a way to replace his 69-point production. MacLean guessed the Capitals could potentially get at least a first-round pick and a top prospect in return for Ovechkin, likening the package to what Washington gave St. Louis in return for defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk.
“That’s just the starting point,” MacLean said. “And it’s a lot higher than that.”
Shattenkirk was a pending unrestricted free agent, a rental player for the Capitals’ postseason run. Ovechkin’s cap hit is significantly higher, but he should still fetch more than Shattenkirk did because there’s term left on his contract and he’s an elite goal-scorer. One option is that Washington finds a trade partner willing to do a one-for-one swap with Ovechkin and another high-dollar player, like the trade of Shea Weber for P.K. Subban between Nashville and Montreal last summer.
That option is limited, too, as very few players have a cap hit comparable to Ovechkin’s, and those that do received such a contract because their respective teams intended to keep them for the duration of their careers. If the Los Angeles Kings are looking to go in a different direction under a new general manager and coach, center Anze Kopitar has a $10 million cap hit, and while he’s two years younger than Ovechkin, his deal has seven seasons left on it. He’s also coming off a disappointing 12-goal, 40-assist season. A trade of Ovechkin for Kopitar may leave Washington even more constricted by the cap and less productive. Anaheim 32-year-old right wing Corey Perry has a slightly lower cap hit than Ovechkin, but his production isn’t as impressive with 19 goals and 34 assists this past season.
In a scenario where the Golden Knights were the trade partner for Ovechkin, would Vegas part with the sixth-overall pick in the upcoming draft, and how much appeal would that hold for the Capitals who are trying to win a title now? MacLellan could also ask McPhee to select a certain player in the expansion draft, perhaps a young, puck-moving defenseman or goal-scoring forward left exposed by a team lacking enough protected slots — a dilemma likely to be faced by the Ducks and Minnesota Wild — and then trade him along with a draft pick or picks in the package for Ovechkin. Washington doesn’t have a pick in the upcoming draft until the fourth round, so more of those coupled with a quality, proven player could be inviting.
“You can’t even consider moving him unless you’re getting a good price back,” MacLean said.
Step 4: So, is it all worth it?
Even in saving the full $9.5 million in salary cap space, his 33 goals have to be replaced, and the upcoming free-agent class is underwhelming. This is considered to be a down draft class, so even if Washington was able to receive a top-10 pick, the player selected would likely be years away from matching Ovechkin’s production, if he ever did. The risk in picks and prospects is always the unknown of such trades. And with any trade involving its most popular and consistently effective player, Washington will want a high degree of certainty.
With the Capitals keen to contend for a championship in the immediate future, keeping Ovechkin on the roster still gives them a good chance to do that.
“I’ll take my chances on Alexander Ovechkin,” Button said. “There’s no guarantees, but you know, [am I] going to start taking my chances on a first-round pick right now that might end up being a star in three or four years time and maybe a prospect? Over a guy that I know is already damn good and has been one of the best players in the league? I’m taking my chances on [star players], sorry.”