Much like the blooming of the cherry blossoms, the official end of winter in Washington is often heralded by scurrilous whispering that Alex Ovechkin, multiple Rocket Richard winner, is really what’s ailing this team.
Interestingly, with so many other problems with the Capitals having presented themselves over the last few months — with team makeup, roster selection, player usage, penalty killing ineffectiveness, leaky defense, outright lousy goaltending, bad luck, etc. etc. etc. etc. — this is actually the latest the rumblings have really started to crop up over the past few years (more often, it’s in February). But the fact that they’re cropping up again nonetheless is frankly bizarre.
This is the reigning league MVP, coming off scoring 32 goals in 48 games to win his third Rocket Richard in six years, and who is as of this writing a goal away from breaking 50 for the fifth time in nine seasons. But still the criticism lingers, because he’s the most visible athlete in the city (all apologies to John Wall, Bryce Harper, and Robert Griffin III), playing on the richest AAV in the league by nearly $1 million, and his team is the smoldering crater of a turd meteor.
Someone has to answer for it, and it’s probably going to be Adam Oates, but people love blaming stars for their teams’ problems, so blame Ovechkin they will. There are a whole hell of a lot of reasons that the Caps would, of course, be foolish to trade Ovechkin now, or probably ever, but the chief among these is obvious:
Think about it this way: He’s shooting 13 percent this season, the third-lowest number of any of his 50-goal campaigns, despite the fact that his shot rate is above his career average (5.11 vs. 5.08). He’s also still “only” 28, which is to say that he’s past his peak production years of 24 to 26, but he’s still got a lot of tread on the tires yet; it’s not so far out of the realm of possibility that he posts two, three, four more half-century seasons before he becomes a mere 30-to-40-goal guy.
Moreover, the return you’d get for him would probably be about 40 percent of his value. You’d get a few first-rounders, probably; and depending on the team to which you trade him, you get anywhere from a lottery pick to No. 30 overall for a few years. It’s a real gamble in that regard, but in general Ovechkin probably makes even a bad team so good that they end up not picking too low (see also: the 2013-14 Capitals). Plus you’re taking back a few roster players, probably younger, high-end ones. Maybe, collectively, they provide you about two-thirds of Ovechkin’s production in a given season, or perhaps a bit more. You probably also have to take on a dead-weight contract to even out the cap hit, because again, Ovechkin makes a little less than $9.54 million against it, and you don’t make up that ground taking on entry-level or bridge deals. Think David Clarkson, and weep.
And so what are you left with, apart from a gaping hole at your first-line left wing, and a dramatically worse power play? Maybe, just maybe, you pull a little better in terms of defensive numbers; the Caps’ shots allowed has skyrocketed under Adam Oates — who in an “Ovechkin has been traded” what-if has likely also been put out to pasture because you sure as hell don’t choose him over Ovechkin; this would have to be a total house-cleaning — and getting a number of players back for him certainly helps shore up your depth. You do not, for example, trade Ovechkin without getting a meaningful top-pairing defenseman in return, one suspects.
But you’re also left with a huge step back in terms of goal production; the Caps have 222 goals scored this season, of which 49 are Ovechkin’s, more than 22 percent of the total. This is a team on which Joel Ward and Troy Brouwer are tied for the second-largest goal total at just 23; this team without Ovechkin probably looks a lot like the pre-2005 lockout Calgary Flames if they lost Jarome Iginla (albeit with Nicklas Backstrom serving as a significant upgrade over then-No.1 Calgary center Craig Conroy oh god that team was so bad). Even getting 30 goals back for him, and another five or six prevented, still costs you something like five points in the standings.
And as to that downgrade in the power play, consider Ovechkin’s value here. This year, 22 of his 49 goals have come up at least one man, because he can bomb it from the top of the left circle with impunity. That’s more than one-third of the team’s 65 power play goals, and even if they replaced half of them with other players, that still drops them to 54 in that situation, still top-6 in the league, but certainly not the No. 1 they enjoy now. Losing 11 power play goals alone (a conservative estimate in a league where the 15th-place team has 46) probably loses the Caps another three or four points in the standings.
The point is that for all his defensive problems, which is ostensibly the reason why many of his critics would like to see him traded — that and “leadership,” or whatever — Ovechkin provides so many things that few maybe three or four other players on the planet can give a team. He’s one-dimensional, yes. But his dimension is scoring 45-55 goals per year. Seriously, his career average is 50.8 in an 82-game season (0.62 per game).
By trading Ovechkin, you accomplish three things:
First, you free up a decent amount of cap space.
Second, you make your team even worse than it already is, and it’s pretty bad right now.
Third, you make the team to which he is traded almost incomprehensibly better.
You don’t make up what Ovechkin lacks by committee. You can’t. You shouldn’t even bother talking about it. But you gotta blame the stars, right? Couldn’t be anyone else’s fault.