With the dust settling on the wreckage of yet another Washington Capitals season that ended too soon, there are fingers being pointed. That is to be expected.
And, not surprisingly, a lot of those fingers are being pointed at Capitals captain Alexander Ovechkin.
This is hardly anything new. Ovechkin is one of the best pure goal scorers of his era – maybe ever – and has been the face of the Capitals since he entered the league as the top overall pick in 2004. But, at 31 years old, he has yet to lead the Caps past the second round of the playoffs.
This season may have held his best chance yet. The Capitals had a great team that finished with the best regular season record in the NHL for the second consecutive year. They were considered to be Cup favorites.
But then, also for the second consecutive year, the Caps were bounced in the second round by the Pittburgh Penguins.
It was a devastating fate for Washington, especially considering this was a beatable Pens team without Kris Letang for the entire series and Sidney Crosby for nearly two full games. The Capitals felt they were the better team – and, for much of the series, they were – but they simply didn’t get the job done.
Now, with another failure stacked on the pile, a familiar question is arising: Are the Capitals better off without Ovechkin?
Geoff BurkeGeoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
The answer to that question is a bit more unclear than it has been in the past.
This year, it felt like Ovechkin was a reason for the Capitals’ collapse more so than in previous campaigns. It certainly wasn’t entirely his fault, but Ovechkin could have been better. He should have been better.
Ovechkin scored just twice in the series and was a minus-5. Ovechkin was especially bad in Game 7, when he was on the ice for both Penguins goals in the 2-0 loss. He was partially at fault for both of them.
It was revealed after the series that Ovechkin was playing hurt. He suffered a knee injury during a collision with Nazem Kadri in the first round, then suffered a hamstring injury in the series against Pittsburgh. Judging from the picture shared by his wife, it was an ugly one. needed numbing injections to play through it.
That probably gives some insight into why he wasn’t as effective as he needed to be, but it’s also clear that Washington head coach Barry Trotz still wasn’t thrilled with the way that his star winger played in the final series.
Ovechkin fell out of favor with Trotz and was dropped from the top line to the third line prior to Game 5 in favor of Burakovsky. Burakovsky played well and Ovechkin stayed on the third line, where he skated alongside Lars Eller and Tom Wilson, for the remainder of the series.
It’s somewhat easy to understand Trotz’s logic with that move. Burakovsky was on top of his game, Ovechkin was injured and not producing like a top-liner. The swap helps spread out their offensive threats and, maybe, light a fire under a team that was down in the series.
What’s less easy to understand, though, is why Ovechkin played so few minutes in the final period of the Capitals’ season – a period in which they desperately needed offense to salvage their season.
He had just 7:08 of ice time in the third period, with 2:51 coming to close out the game. That means he played less than five minutes through the opening 17 minutes of the third period as the Capitals tried to climb back in the game.
Either the injury kept him off the ice … or Trotz did.
If it’s the latter – and there’s reason to believe it is, considering Trotz said, “emotionally,” he didn’t want to talk about Ovechkin’s performance following Game 7 – then it’s fair to wonder about that relationship going forward.
If a coach doesn’t have faith in his star offensive weapon while trailing in the closing period of a Game 7, that’s something that needs to be fixed.
Amber SearlsAmber Searls-USA TODAY Sports
Oveckin isn’t the player he once was. He’s still a player that should inspire fear in the opposition, but he’s slowing down.
His 33 goals this year were the lowest total he’s seen in a full season since 2010-2011. At 31, he probably shouldn’t be asked to shoulder the load like he has in the past.
But, with that in mind, there’s no reason to think that he can’t still be a very valuable offensive piece for years to come.
The question is: Should he be that piece in Washington or somewhere else?
With the Capitals at a crossroads, it’s not entirely out of the question that trading Ovechkin is a legitimate (and smart) option for the organization.
It all depends on what the outlook is from Washington’s front office. This year may have been Washington’s best shot at winning Cup, but it’s also not necessarily their last shot.
Charles LeClaireCharles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
In all likelihood, the Capitals are going to be worse next season. They have a bunch of expiring contracts on the books – including those belonging to key forwards like T.J.Oshie, Justin Williams, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky – and not enough money to keep everyone.
They may not be as good, but that doesn’t mean they’re dead.
There’s a certain randomness factor that goes into winning the Stanley Cup. Sometimes teams get hot at the right time, sometimes teams get lucky, and sometimes it’s a crapshoot. The team that’s considered the best team doesn’t always win. Nobody knows that more than the Capitals.
So if Washington wants to roll the dice over the next few years, focus on just getting into the postseason and then seeing where things go from there, that’s not an entirely terrible approach. Maybe, finally, one of these times they’ll get lucky.
If that’s the play, then their best course of option is to keep Ovechkin. He’s still a weapon and, unless they truly strike some front office magic, they’re probably a better team with him in the short term than with whatever he’d yield in a trade.
Geoff BurkeGeoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
But while it’s not completely shut, the Ovechkin Window is closing. The Capitals have some nice young pieces in place with more in the pipeline. If they want to concede that this current leadership group had their shot and didn’t get the job done, they can look bigger picture and start to build around those younger guys like Kuznetsov and Burakovsky.
If that’s the case, trading Ovechkin makes sense. He has a limited no-trade clause that allows him to rule out 10 destinations and his $9.538 million cap hit isn’t the most attractive pricetag for a team looking for a piece to complete the puzzle, especially considering Ovechkin is signed through 2021 at that number. (And buyer should beware: Ovechkin probably isn’t going to provide enough value to live up to that price, nor should he be expected to. He’s overpaid, just like plenty of other veterans in the league.)
But that’s not to say someone wouldn’t be willing to gamble and make a splash by adding a guy like Ovechkin. Someone most certainly would. There’s no shortage of desperate general managers.
Say one of them is willing to give the Capitals a package of prospect young prospects and/or draft picks in exchange Ovechkin and an increased opportunity to win right now. For the buyer, Ovechkin can come in and be a secondary contributor without having to captain the team and be the leading voice in the locker room – something we’re not entirely sure he excels at right now.
NHLI via Getty Images
For the Capitals, such a package allows them to take a deep breath, regroup and revitalize after a decade of coming up short. It also helps them add assets for the long term while most likely giving them a bit of breathing room on the cap. They likely wouldn’t need a full-on rebuild, but rather a re-tooling in a post-Ovechkin era.
Ultimately, it all depends on whether they’re willing to admit they’re exhausted and ready to close the door on that era.
Losing Ovechkin not only makes the Capitals worse, it makes them less appealing. Washington owner Ted Leonsis seemingly loves Ovechkin, and why shouldn’t he? Ovi is a generational talent that made his franchise relevant again and made him quite a bit of money in the process.
An Ovechkin divorce would mean sacrificing star power and the money/exposure that comes with it, at least for now. That’s typically not the most attractive option on the table for the owner of a professional sports team.
Then again, neither is being labeled a choker year after year.