Trading Alex Ovechkin would do a number of things: it would send shockwaves throughout the hockey world; it would send many Washington Capitals fans to the local emergency room, sick with worry their beloved team had cut loose the best player in franchise history; and it would signal the beginning of a basement-to-roof rebuild of a disappointing Caps team that, in all honesty, could probably use it.
But let’s be as clear: we can debate it all we want, but the Capitals aren’t trading Ovechkin. At least, not at this stage of his career. Given that Ovechkin has failed to demonstrate he can make his teammates better and that Adam Oates is the fourth coach of his nine years in the NHL, there won’t be a number of GMs bombarding Washington colleague George McPhee with phone calls to try taking him off the Capitals’ payroll. Even if they were able to find a trade partner, the Caps likely would have to take back bad contracts and/or eat a portion of Ovechkin’s deal to make it palatable. (Think Roberto Luongo going from Vancouver to Florida.) There’s no trade out there that’s a perfect tonic for what ails either the Caps or their captain.
The best thing they can hope for is the 28-year-old finally heeds the advice of fans and former coaches and endeavors to become a more well-rounded (read: defensively competent) player. Or – and I’m only half-joking here – management and ownership can start dropping Russian tourism pamphlets around the dressing room in the hope he follows Ilya Kovalchuk’s path back to the Kontinental League, thus providing them with immediate salary cap relief from the seven years (at a cap hit of $9.5 million per season) remaining on his contract.
For better or worse, they’re stuck with each other for now. But that doesn’t mean Ovechkin’s life will get any easier when Washington returns next season with a new look that could include a replacement for McPhee and/or Oates. This year should prove beyond doubt the Caps aren’t a quick-fix team that can jump right back in the playoff hunt (let alone be a Stanley Cup frontrunner) next season, so the chorus of Ovechkin critics will only grow louder. All the individual effort in the world isn’t going to endear him to fans or his employers any more than it already has.
Maybe this situation evolves in a way none of us anticipate. Maybe there’s a brash new owner in another NHL market who wants to make a splash and sees Ovechkin as the catalyst to doing so. Perhaps an organization thinks another year of losing will trigger a chemical change in the way he sees himself and awakens him to the clock that’s ticking on the peak years he’s nearing the end of.
Maybe, but maybe not. There’s just as much chance Washington hangs onto him come hell or high water. That’s the way most teams treat their franchise player.
Ovechkin might be the highest-profile star to face this career crossroads, but less talented NHLers deal with it all the time. He has the luxury of contract certainty, but that’s nearly as much of an albatross now as it is a comfort. With every year that passes, his salary and accompanying status will serve as a shrinking turtleneck, slowly choking him off. He’s going to be judged by team results and team results alone.
A trade isn’t going to improve Ovechkin’s situation. Nor will a buyout (which is even less likely than a trade). Wherever No. 8 goes, the questions about him will remain the same; the only difference will be where he answers them.