On the "Blessing in Disguise" of an Ovechkin Defection

Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images

Would Alex Ovechkin bugging out for Mother Russia actually be a good thing for the Caps?

Last summer Ilya Kovalchuk dropped a bomb on the NHL community (this time off the ice) when he retired from the NHL, giving up a lucrative contract in the process, and returned to Russia to play in the KHL (for another lucrative contract).

His decision - which the structure of his contract strongly implied would happen someday, if not so soon - furthered the already-pervasive belief that Russians don't really want to be in the NHL. Any hockey fan that has followed the draft since 2000 is familiar with "the Russian factor," i.e. a decline in draft position based on the fear that a prospect won't leave Russia (which is how the Caps ended up drafting a talent Evgeny Kuznetsov 26th overall). The metamorphosis of the Russian Superleague into the KHL in 2008 provided a more realistic, high-quality alternative to the NHL grind than had existed before, while a flood of oil and natural gas profits, combined with tax exemptions for athletes, gave KHL owners a powerful lure to attract Russian players.

"Reverse defection" to the KHL is very real. According to data from QuantHockey.com, the number of Russian players in the NHL has declined from a high of 73 in 2000-2001 (or 7.5%) to 34 (3.5%). High-profile reverse defectors have included Nikolai Zherdev, Nikita Filatov, and Alexander Radulov. However, it wasn't until Kovalchuk decamped for SKA St. Petersburg that a bona-fide Russian superstar in his prime (or close to it) had chosen the KHL over the NHL. Since his departure, members of the hockey media have discussed the impact of his defection and speculated who the next Russian to leave the NHL might be.

The Hockey News's Adam Proteau has moved beyond speculation to flat out advocacy. It was really only a matter of time, but Proteau finally published the inevitable column explaining not only that Alex Ovechkin would be the next Russian to give up millions of NHL dollars, but going so far as to say that it would be a good thing for the Caps. Feel free to click the link, but if you're actively looking to destroy your own cognitive functions I'd suggest a nice glass of scotch (or four), instead...

Proteau's column doesn't even make it through two sentences before his opinion collides unfavorably with reality:

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.

Alex Ovechkin is the two-time reigning goal-scoring champion of the NHL. He won his third Hart Trophy as the league's most valuable player last summer. That makes three Harts, three Lindsay/Lester B. Pearson Trophies (MVP as voted by the players), four Rocket Richard trophies as the top goal-scorer, an Art Ross Trophy as the league's leading scorer, a Calder Trophy as the top rookie... and that's just the formal NHL awards.

Compare Ovechkin's individual haul to that of his perennial foil Sidney Crosby: two Art Rosses, two Pearson/Lindsays, one Hart, and one Richard. (Crosby, of course, has a Cup and two Olympic gold medals, but again, we're talking about individual expectations here, not team achievements.) Crosby is widely and fairly regarded as the best player in the world. So what, exactly, were the expectations for Ovechkin? According to Proteau, he hasn't "driven" his team far enough.

I didn't realize Alex Ovechkin was also responsible for making sure the team arrived at the arena.

This isn't the NBA. This isn't even the NFL. There is no skater in hockey that regularly plays even half of his team's minutes, and only a select few forwards that regularly play more than a third of a game. The nature of the sport dictates that even historically great players need help around them. Wayne Gretzky won how many Cups after he left Edmonton? Mario Lemieux won how many Cups without Jaromir Jagr?

To win a Cup, Gretzky needed Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Paul Coffey, and Glenn Anderson. Lemieux needed Jagr, Joe Mullen, Kevin Stevens, and Coffey. Jonathan Toews needed Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith, and Brent Seabrook. Crosby needed Evgeni Malkin, Bill Guerin, Kris Letang and, apparently, Pascal Dupuis... for some reason.

Players don't singlehandedly "drive" their teams anywhere, no matter how juicy a narrative that concept makes. That Proteau uses this point as a rhetorical crutch willfully ignores the reality of the sport. The Caps have usually been a miserable failure come springtime, everyone knows that, but Ovechkin hasn't been the problem. Far from it, in fact. But Proteau has already absolved Adam Oates of his culpability ("Head coach Adam Oates should be the last to be blamed") and George McPhee is gone, so it's all eyes on Ovi (which, in and of itself, isn't completely meritless, but is in this context for the reasons detailed herein).

And yet, somehow, Proteau's argument only gets worse. After acknowledging the overwhelmingly negative PR aspects of such a move, Proteau does Ovechkin and the Caps the favor of laying out how to sell the move to the red-rocking faithful:

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.

Well that's completely analogous, isn't it? Ignoring the fact that Nash isn't in the same stratosphere as Ovechkin in any number of respects, everyone remembers how Rick Nash was jettisoned from Columbus for no return, the classic "addition by subtraction" move. Take the best player on a team that isn't great... and get rid of him for no return. Just like Columbus. Of course, by "no return" I mean "Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Tim Erixon, and a first round pick (which became prospect Kerby Rychel)." Addition by subtraction indeed.

But hey, anything to make the team contend, right? The Caps could give up Ovi and have all the success of the Columbus Blue Jackets. The same Columbus Blue Jackets that have one playoff series appearance with Rick Nash and one playoff series appearance without him. True, the Jackets did manage to win two playoff games without Nash, which is two more than they won with Nash - I don't personally consider two extra playoff wins to be a substantial improvement, but your mileage may vary.

Now also seems like a relevant time to point out that one of the keys to Columbus' playoff "success" post-Nash was the play of Brandon Dubinsky going head to head with Crosby... the same Brandon Dubinsky that was acquired when the Jackets traded Rick Nash. It's hard to second-guess history, but I suspect Columbus wouldn't have moved Nash for literally nothing but cap space. If you want to know how easy it is to improve a team by removing the best player, just ask the New Jersey Devils.

Even if there is a hypothetical scenario in which the Caps could improve their roster with the $9.5 million in cap room vacated by Ovi's departure (more on that in a moment), it's impossible to imagine a scenario in which the Caps would be better off with him walking for nothing than if they were to trade Ovechkin for picks and prospects in addition to the resultant cap room.

So could the Caps improve by trading Ovechkin? It's conceivable, but Proteau told us last month that there's "not a chance" of it happening because no team would take his onerous contract, so we'll move on. (By the way, good on Proteau for realizing what Damien Cox and others have known for years - writing about Ovechkin moves the needle.)

As noted, cap space is incredibly valuable to both Proteau and NHL clubs.

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.

So instead of having Ovechkin, the Capitals could have two players that average $4.75 million per year, or three players that average ~$3.2 million per year? Where do I sign!? What does $3.2-$4.75 million buy you in today's NHL?

Well, Brooks Laich has a cap hit of $4.5 million per year. His cap comparables include Vinny Lecavalier, Martin Erat, Ryan Malone, Andrew Ladd, David Backes and Max Pacioretty. Pacioretty and Backes seem like great ideas... but neither has tested the free-agent market, choosing instead to stick with the teams that drafted them. Who is on the free agent market this summer? Ryan Callahan, Milan Michalek, Ray Whitney, David Legwand, Brian Gionta, Ales Hemsky... Callahan is a gutsy player, Hemsky is skilled, and Whitney was great in the playoffs for Carolina... a decade ago. Do any two of these players make the Caps better than they are with Ovechkin? More to the point, can some combination of two of those players drive the current Caps roster - sans Ovechkin, of course - to the Stanley Cup?

Or the Caps could choose to spread the wealth around a bit more by signing three $3 million players. Joel Ward, for example, costs $3 million against the cap, and his unrestricted free agent comparables are Dainius Zubrus, Tomas Kopecky, and Chris Kelly... do any three of these guys make the Caps better? Of course not. The options this summer are similarly uninspiring (here's a list of pending UFAs; go nuts, armchair GMs with ~$9.5 million to spend). Paying for more lesser players isn't the solution for the Caps; providing Ovechkin with some supporting talent, however, is something they may want to consider.

We've established that Ovi leaving for the KHL now is clearly not good for the Caps (and we haven't even really delved into the off-ice repercussions), but perhaps it's good for Ovechkin (even if as recently as last month Ovechkin was talking about how much he loves D.C. and the fans). Proteau seems to think so:

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.

No, he wouldn't be reminded every day of his inability to "claim" (odd word choice) Cups in Washington. He'd be reminded for the rest of his life that he couldn't win a Cup and then quit and ran home where the competition was easier and lifestyle more comfortable. That's a much better reputation to have. If Ovechkin's leadership and commitment is already questioned, how would moving back to Russia help that? How does that provide a market for him to return to the NHL? Proteau has the answer:

He's still just 28. He's got time.

Not time enough to continue competing in the NHL and finally win a Stanley Cup, mind you, but time enough to quit on his team, rehabilitate his image, and return to the NHL someday. Like Jaromir Jagr 3.0.

Ultimately, there's an argument to be made that the Caps - on the ice, on the salary cap spreadsheets - might someday be in a position where Alex Ovechkin up and leaving for Mother Russia might be a good thing. But that day isn't today. And Adam Proteau didn't make that argument.

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