Look at the headline. Take a deep breath and count to 10. The idea is preposterous, yes, but try to entertain it for a few minutes.
If and only if the Pittsburgh Penguins bow out earlier than expected for the fifth straight post-season after winning the Stanley Cup in 2008-09, an Evgeni Malkin for Alex Ovechkin trade could benefit the Penguins and Washington Capitals.
In Malkin and Sidney Crosby, the Pens have been blessed with two future Hall of Famers and two of the top five players of this generation. They’ve combined for four scoring titles (including Crosby’s this season), two Ted Lindsay Awards, seven First-Team All-Star selections, a Rocket Richard and a Conn Smythe. Crosby and Malkin rank fourth and 11th, respectively, in NHL history in points per game. Add up all those amazing accomplishments and it’s mildly disappointing they’ve yielded but one Cup five years ago.
Sooner or later, it’s going to feel like the Pens are “wasting” these prime years.
And what about Washington? Ovechkin is just as decorated as Crosby and Malkin, if not more, minus a championship. ‘Ovie’ is a three-time MVP, soon to be a four-time goal-scoring king and he belongs on that same short list of this era’s greatest players. But to say he’s been a polarizing figure in D.C. this season is an understatement. He’s been called out for a lack of effort by coach Adam Oates, and Ovie’s defensive ineptitude has made his 50-goal campaign the most criticized in NHL history. First in goals with 50 but 870th in plus-minus at minus-36, Ovie is entertainment incarnate, ain’t he? You know some team is scoring whenever he’s on the ice.
After missing the playoffs, the Caps are in desperate need of a shakeup. If the Pens flop this year, they will be, too. Swapping Malkin and Ovechkin straight up would rock each franchise’s foundation without robbing either of elite talent. Here’s why the trade works a lot more than you may think:
1. There’s a precedent for it. Not just for a superstar trade, but for a trade between division rivals. Edmonton dealt Wayne Gretzky within the Smythe Division in 1988. As the cliché goes, if he can be traded, anyone can. Other superstars dealt while still at the peak of their abilities or close to it: Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, Pavel Bure and Jaromir Jagr. Yes, those trades were largely contract-related, but they still happened and shifted the balance of the league.
2. Money is not an issue, at least cap-wise. Malkin, 27, is due $9.500 million annually for the next eight seasons. Ovechkin, 28, is due $9.538 million annually for the next seven seasons. Remarkably similar situations, meaning the swap would have no impact on either team’s salary cap structure. Ovechkin’s actual salary for the rest of his deal is $500,000 higher at $10 million, but Malkin is due $5-million signing bonuses in 2020-21 and 2021-22. Those payouts are far enough away that they shouldn’t deter the Caps in this fictional deal.
3. Malkin is better than Ovechkin at making others around him better – and Malkin plays his best sans-Crosby. As dynamic a talent as Ovie is, he’ll never be mistaken for a complete player. On top of the defensive deficiencies, he has assisted on just 27 goals all season. Malkin is more capable of controlling the flow of a game. His most dominant season was arguably 2011-12, when he tallied 50 goals and 109 points, won the Hart and was widely considered the best player on the planet. That came in a year when Crosby played just 22 games. ‘Geno’ has never needed Crosby’s help to dominate and they have rarely been linemates, anyway.
4. Ovechkin on Crosby’s wing? Are you kidding me!? It’s the equivalent of uniting Arya Stark and Daenerys Targaryen. If they fought for one side, our brains and televisions would melt from sheer awesomeness. (Maybe they do, eventually? I haven’t read the books. No spoilers, I beg of you.) And any talk of Crosby and Ovechkin’s alleged dislike for each other would rapidly evaporate the minute Sid started feeding Alex the biscuit. I’d set the over/under for Ovechkin goals at 65.5.
5. Pittsburgh could fill its void at center with Ryan Kesler. If the Penguins pursued Kesler already, we know they can afford his $5-million cap hit. Ovechkin only puts $38,462, a.k.a. a decent luxury sedan, more than Malkin toward the cap, so that wouldn’t change much. In my zany hypothetical world, the Pens would only make the earth-shattering Ovie deal once they’ve acquired Kesler, whose talents would be wasted in a No. 3 role behind Malkin anyway.
6. Massive void on Washington’s wings? Move Evgeny Kuznetsov to Malkin’s wing. Pairing them on the first line and, say, Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson on the second looks pretty dangerous to me.
While “hockey trades” of this magnitude simply don’t happen anymore, the deal could genuinely improve both teams. It’s a tougher sell for the Pens, who don’t exactly have trouble scoring and would be adding the one league’s weakest defensive players to a team that already ranks in the middle of the pack in important advanced statistics like Corsi and Fenwick. Adding a Kesler type first would make Ovie more than worth it, though.
A hilariously far-fetched idea, of course. Agree or disagree? If you vote nay, constructively tell me why it’s dumb in the comments.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin