At first blush, the idea of Alex Ovechkin leaving the NHL to go home to his native Russia and play in the Kontinental League seems screwy. Unfortunately, after nine NHL seasons, Ovechkin has failed to live up to expectations – if not as an individual, then certainly as the driver of a team.
His Washington Capitals are awash in mediocrity and have moved from being a bona fide Cup contender to a draft lottery candidate. He won his second consecutive Rocket Richard Trophy, but had the NHL’s third-worst plus-minus (minus-35). Where once he was the Hockey Elvis, he’s now the King in his unhappy later years, surviving on what he’s always been good at, but never growing as an artist.
So now when you wonder if Ovechkin could actually leave the NHL for the KHL, the question doesn’t seem far-fetched at all. Increasingly, it’s near-fetched. And to this writer, it seems like the best solution for the star and the Capitals.
Of course, should Ovechkin decide to change leagues, he’d need to be extremely careful lest he come off looking like an even bigger villain than Ilya Kovalchuk did when he abruptly abandoned the New Jersey Devils last summer. There would be a sizeable contingent of mortified Washington fans no matter what Ovechkin said to explain himself, but life is all about framing and this situation would be no different.
Here’s how he should frame it: by pointing to other teams that have parted ways with their franchise player and discovered the devil they knew wasn’t always better than the one they didn’t. Take the Blue Jackets, for example. There was no shortage of angst-ridden Columbus fans when management traded their franchise cornerstone, Rick Nash, to the Rangers in the summer of 2012. That transaction benefitted the Jackets as much as it did Nash (who no longer had the full weight of an organization sitting on his shoulders). It was a classic short-term-pain-for-long-term-gain scenario.
Ovechkin leaving for the KHL would free up some $9.5 million in salary cap space for the seven years remaining on his contract. As we should know by now, that space would allow Caps management to acquire two or three high-quality talents and add balance to a roster that desperately needs it. Ovechkin could paint himself as making a sacrifice for the long-term good of the franchise.
There is some question whether the NHL would provide cap relief to the Capitals if Ovechkin returned to Russia, but the league would have an extremely tough time justifying a rejection of cap relief for one team after providing it to the Devils. As well, KHL president Alexander Medvedev recently gave an interview with Russian publication championat.com in which he said, “there is a legal way for any player if he decides to play in another league (to do so) without breaking the mutual (KHL/NHL) agreement to respect each other’s contracts.” Clearly, it’s technically possible.
Most importantly, how would leaving the NHL be good for Ovechkin? For one thing, he’d be in his own element as the biggest star ever to skate in the KHL. He wouldn’t be reminded every day of his inability to claim Cups in Washington, and he’d also have the chance of returning to North America if and when the opportunity was right.
He’s still just 28. He’s got time.
A vision quest is a trip an individual takes back to nature to focus on his identity and solidify his future. In essence, that’s what Ovechkin would be doing by going back to Russia. If he wants to, the last thing the Caps should be doing is persuading him otherwise.