With each passing season that ends in unmet expectations for the Washington Capitals, the judgmental finger of a hockey-watching populace remains pointed squarely at Alex Ovechkin.
For as many individual awards as Ovechkin has to his name, his name has yet to be engraved on the Stanley Cup. That has left an increasingly vocal minority wondering if the 28-year-old will ever lead his team to a championship as the focal point of a franchise.
“If you’re asking me if we can win with him," former general manager George McPhee said Monday, "I believed we could win with him."
That is a question that McPhee's successor will have to answer. Ovechkin's contract -- he has seven years and $70 million remaining with a league-high $9,538,462 salary cap charge -- makes him that much harder to move. He also has a modified no-trade clause that kicks in July 1 that will allow him to list up to 10 teams that he will not accept a trade to.
Asked about the freedom that the new general manager will have to make personnel decisions, team owner Ted Leonsis said last week that the incoming executive will be "deeply empowered" and have “the exact same liberties that George McPhee had." When pressed on whether any current member of the roster is considered untouchable (namely Ovechkin), Leonsis said only that he and team president Dick Patrick would listen to proposals.
“I’m not the general manager,” he said. “So if a general manager comes with something we would listen to the general manager, but I’m not the general manager.”
Realistically, it seems unlikely that Ovechkin will be traded, at least not anytime soon. The key then is to use the projected $14.28 million in salary cap space (assuming the cap rises to $71 million) to surround Ovechkin with players that can maximize his skill set. Particularly, his even-strength production has sharply declined over the past several seasons and his linemates' woeful on-ice shooting percentage has only exacerbated the problem.
The electric superstar has been and likely always be a lightning rod for criticism, a distinction that he has accepted as the captain and face of the franchise. Following the firing of coach Adam Oates last week, Ovechkin will play under his fifth coach in 10 NHL seasons next fall, feeding the "coach killer" narrative.
Last month, Ovechkin dismissed that label as an inevitable product of his 13-year contract, noting that "some change is going to happen.” Those who oversee him expectedly defended him.
"Alex Ovechkin is a great, great hockey player. I wish we had two of him. Then we wouldn’t even be here today, probably,” Patrick said last week. “All he wants to do is win.
“The criticism goes, unfairly I think, tilted towards him when we’re not winning because people are saying, ‘You’ve got Alex Ovechkin, how come you haven’t won a Cup?. It does take a team, it takes 20 guys. How can you be unhappy with what Alex Ovechkin’s accomplished and continues to accomplish in the National Hockey League?”
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