Case against the case for trading Alex Ovechkin (Huge If True)
Well it's that time of year again: The Washington Capitals are out of the playoffs and many people have seemingly decided that the best way for them to improve is to trade the guy who has led the league in goal-scoring for each of the last four seasons.
Much like the blossoming of the cherry trees around Washington, D.C., the nation's capital has fallen in recent years onto an annual tradition of shivving Alex Ovechkin for problems that are not his fault.
No surprise here, but noted hockey liker Mike Wilbon of ESPN and the Washington Post fired a pre-emptive strike while the Caps were still playing, saying that if the team were to lose Game 5 — of a series they were trailing 3-1 at the time — then Ovechkin had to go. He's never made it to a Cup Final so he has to go. Same old crap from a guy who spent, let's say, three minutes total this season accidentally watching the Caps.
In the time since, others have gone that far as well. It's not especially bright or well-reasoned, but they do it because, if we're going to take a lesson from the real thinkers of the game like Larry Brooks and Joe Haggerty, he didn't do enough to make the rest of the Capitals better. Whatever that means.
This is one of those things where it's tough to suss out whether people are being disingenuous, right? Like, who could actually believe that trading Ovechkin or any elite-level player makes the team getting rid of him better? These types of swaps happen so rarely in the NHL to begin with for a number of reasons. The best recent comparable is the Bruins' Tyler Seguin trade, so why don't you ask the GM who pulled the trigger on that deal how it worked out after your call is forwarded to his new office? And Ovechkin is considerably better than Seguin was at the time.
But taking the exercise to its logical conclusion yesterday was ESPN's Rob Vollman, a titan of the hockey analytics movement and usually a judicious observer, made “The case for trading Alex Ovechkin.” This is based on the fact that the Capitals lost in the second round again and are 5-8 in playoff series since 2007-08.
Let's go with that as far as we can.
At first glance, the notion of trading Ovechkin seems absolutely crazy.
So far I am with you.
He won the Maurice Richard trophy as the league's leading goal scorer for the fourth straight season, has won the Hart trophy three times in his career, and finished runner-up on two more occasions. He is the main reason why the Capitals are one of only four teams with at least 400 wins and 890 points during the last nine seasons combined.
Even in this year's postseason, he tied John Carlson for the team lead with 12 points in 12 games, in which time the Capitals outscored opponents 19-5 with Ovechkin on the ice, while being outscored 17-10 when he wasn't.
Okay, yes. This seems like a player you absolutely do not trade for any reason. So I guess what I'm saying is, I feel like there's a “but” coming.
Why would GM Brian MacLellan possibly consider trading Ovechkin? In theory, it would be to shake things up, try something new and accelerate the start of the post-Ovechkin era.
Ooo, hmm, there it is. “Shake things up, try something new, and accelerate the start of the post-Ovechkin era,” definitely qualifies as a reason to make such a trade. Not, like, a good reason or anything, but definitely a reason.
The rest of the preamble from Vollman basically boils down to “They traded a lot of good players in the past when they were between 29 and 31, so they could do it with Ovechkin as well because it's now a cap league and Ovechkin is expensive.”
Because after all, folks, I don't know if you knew this but: Alex Ovechkin is 30!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Who's Going Where?
After that the article talks about a team with the need for Ovechkin, the cap space to take his salary on, and trade pieces the Capitals would want back. An example provided (of several that could be reasonable destinations): Winnipeg. Who would they give up? Some of their many good prospects. Oh and the second overall pick, too. Yeah, sure.
Why wouldn't a budget team offer up Patrick Laine for a 31-year-old guy who has a contract that pays him more than $9.5 million against the cap at $10 million in actual money for each of the next four seasons?
Of course, Ovechkin has a no-trade clause that lets him list up to 10 teams to which he cannot be moved and ah jeez I wonder if Winnipeg, a city no one wants to live in, is on it? Shoot, who knows?
But hey, there are other teams out there that could take Ovechkin instead. And they for sure would also have a great mix of picks and prospects that the Capitals would love to take on. Like, umm... well there's... what about... hmm.
Vollman wraps up by saying that it's unlikely Ovechkin gets traded (yes, quite) both because it could actually hurt the team and because Ovechkin has the limited no-trade. However, he says GM Brian MacLellan should at least be entertaining offers for Ovechkin.
This is, however, not especially insightful.
If Peter Chiarelli calls up MacLellan tomorrow and says, “Hey bud wanna do Ovechkin for McDavid and the No. 4?” MacLellan better hope upon hope Ovechkin doesn't have Edmonton on his no-trade list, because that's a deal you have to take. Yes, GMs should always pick up the phone and not hang up on anyone when they bring up a player's name. Likewise, if Chiarelli got a call from Jim Rutherford saying, “Crosby, Malkin, and Letang with 50 percent salary retained each for McDavid,” you have to at least think about it.
But here's another reason Ovechkin isn't getting traded: MacLellan knows that wouldn't be a good move. He's said as much on numerous occasions in recent years. The GM recognizes that age is a factor here, and estimates that Ovechkin has at least another year or two of being an extremely high-level player before you have to think about whether the window to be truly Cup-competitive is open. He has also said on numerous occasions that his priority is to get faster this summer, especially on the back end, because that's where Pittsburgh exposed them.
The problem with trading Ovechkin, theoretically, is that the return will not be equal to what's leaving the club: 50 goals, like clockwork. Even a dropping-off-as-he-ages Ovechkin probably still clears 40 with relative ease. He's going to be 31, not 37.
Again, let's just follow this thread out. Ovechkin starts to decline and only scores 45 next season. How many guys scored 45 this year? Just him and Patrick Kane. But okay maybe he drops off even more than that and only scores 40. That still has him in the top four in the league. And that's with a 20 percent(!) decline in goal-scoring.
In the past four seasons, Ovechkin has scored 186 goals in 286 games. Steven Stamkos is second, but still 53 behind that number (albeit in 42 fewer games played). Only 18 other guys have scored more than 100. Even if Ovechkin comes back to the pack very, very hard in the next two or three seasons — during MacLellan's “window” — he's still an elite goal-scorer putting every top offensive player in the sport to shame.
And it's worth noting that Ovechkin is a volume shooter and at some point maybe your ability to generate shots at an absurd level tails off. Well, he's led the league in shots in all but one of the seasons he played so far, including each of the last four. His shooting percentage is actually a little on the low side among the 19 players who cleared 100 goals over four seasons. He scores a lot because he shoots the puck like a madman. He has 361 more shots than the No. 2 guy on the list.
Only three others have generated 1,000 shots on goal since the lockout-shortened season began, but none are higher than Max Pacioretty's 1,038. Ovechkin is one away from 1,400.
This is next-level stuff, and if Washington gives that away even for a super-return — which it almost certainly wouldn't get — then it probably doesn't make up the difference even if the defense is better.
The problem with the “Trade [star player] to get closer to the Cup” argument is that you can make it for anyone almost over the age of 30. Where would San Jose be if it had been able to follow through on its attempt to trade both Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau a few summers ago?
A guess: Not in the Western Conference Final.
Sometimes you need to give demonstrably great teams a few kicks at the can. Only one gets to win the Cup every year. Offloading Ovechkin in some sort of scapegoating/exorcising effort effectively does not allow you to perform at the same level, full stop.
This Is So Huge, If True: Is It True?
On a B.S. detector scale of 1-5, with one being the most reasonable and 5 being the least:
There is no chance that the Capitals trade Ovechkin this summer. Literally it is not going to happen. And it shouldn't.
So here ya go, all five poops just for you:
Have a good one, gang.
Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.
(All statistics via War On Ice unless otherwise noted.)
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