Has Alex Ovechkin Worn Out His Welcome with Floundering Washington Capitals?

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Has Alex Ovechkin Worn Out His Welcome with Floundering Washington Capitals?
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When my editor and I were bandying about ideas for season-ending and playoff stories a couple weeks ago, he tossed out the idea of writing something about Alex Ovechkin's season and what winning a Stanley Cup would mean for his reputation.

"Yeah, but the Capitals might not even make the playoffs," I noted.

"That's true," he said. "But he's probably worth writing about one way or the other."

It was a good point. However, then he continued and I have to admit I rolled my eyes pretty hard at what followed.

"I mean, he's a minus-30 or minus-35 and leads the league in that so we can examine that."

Ugh. 

Rob Carr/Getty Images

I've been a pretty avid defender of Alex Ovechkin and vocal critic of those that cite his plus/minus as a way to sleight a guy who has more Hart and Richard Trophies than any active player in the NHL.

There might not be a more flawed statistic in any sport than plus/minus, and the idea of using that as a jumping-off point for savaging one of the game's best players isn't something I'm looking to do.

Then I thought about it some more. Again, I decided my editor had a point and this was a topic worth having a serious discussion about.

I know plus/minus is mostly pointless. I know that if you want a better assessment of how a player is doing at even strength, you want to look at his Corsi and Fenwick, and there's a lot to like about Ovechkin's possession statistics in that regard.

I know that his goals-for percentage in relation to that number is extremely negative, which is an indication of bad luck and faulty goaltending at times in Washington.

I know all that. Most people know all that.

But do the Capitals know that? Do Ovechkin's teammates know that? Better yet, if they do know that, do they care? Are they growing weary of a superstar who doesn't give it his all, whether that's true or not?

We exist in a pretty great time with how people who are way smarter than me have devised a much better way to analyze the exploits of professional hockey players, but there's a human side to things that can get lost some times.

Hockey is an emotional game played by people who can become frustrated or angry at a lot of things—for instance, a player who is perceived to not be giving it his all in certain situations—and that can affect the overall performance of a team.

Yes, an Alex Ovechkin who takes a few shifts off is still more productive than a Troy Brouwer who goes all-out on every play, but when does having a player who takes a few shifts offno matter how talentedbecome a detriment to a team?

The notion that Ovechkin puts it into cruise control sometimes isn't a criticism being thrown against the wall in the hopes it will stick—it's been happening a lot in the past year.

It was March 2013 when Ovechkin drew the ire of the anti-Ovechkin crowd for a goal during a game against the New York Rangers. Derek Stepan slipped past Ovechkin in the neutral zone, skated into the attacking zone on a three-on-three and banked a puck off goaltender Braden Holtby to tie the regular-season game at 1-1.

Ovechkin was getting killed for his lackadaisical backcheck, but, to me, he was not the culprit on that goal.

He went for a hit in the neutral zone and missed, which resulted in a rush. Stepan carried the puck behind the net and took advantage of an out-of-position Holtby to score what was a soft goal that had very little to do with Ovechkin's effort.

To be fair, that was my perception of the play. That wasn't necessarily how coach Adam Oates felt or how Ovechkin's teammates felt. There's no denying Ovechkin wasn't scrambling to get back into the play, but it probably wouldn't have mattered anyway.

Still, it's a regular-season game in a lockout-shortened season and could be treated as an isolated incident.

Two months later in a playoff game against the Rangers, it became a tad more difficult to defend Ovechkin on what was another goal by Stepan.

The Rangers were buzzing around the Capitals' net and Ovechkin had zero interest in busting it down to the goal line to disrupt what was a blossoming scoring opportunity.

He's flat-out gliding in a situation where three or four hard strides could've broken up the pass or the shot in Game 4 of a first-round playoff series in which the Capitals led 2-1.

Stepan's goal turned out to be the winner in a series the Rangers would take in seven games.

This season, there was a repeat performance of the nation's capital's least favorite program, The Reluctant Backchecker.

Ironically, there's no defending that effort in a game that the Capitals needed to win in order to keep their dwindling playoff hopes alive. Ovechkin throttled it down into neutral and glided for 31 feet.

After the game, Oates told reporters his captain quit on the play, which was an accurate statement and needed to be said because the Capitals are at a point where they are painted into a corner by their superstar player on a lifetime contract.

No one in the Capitals' locker room cares about Ovechkin's awards or positive possession statistics. What they care about is going through a film session and watching a teammate give zero effort in important situations, which costs the team games.

I know Ovechkin does more good than bad. You know Ovechkin does more good than bad. However, when does the bad outweigh the good in the minds of everyone else on the team?

Even if you believe those three incidents are 100 percent Ovechkin's fault and those are the only three times he has loafed in his career, all three have happened with Oates in charge.

Something has to change, because if you think Ovechkin's teammates don't care about having a captain who mails it in during key situations on a regular basis even though he fills the net 50 times a year, you're kidding yourself.

So what do the Capitals do with Ovechkin? What do the Capitals do with any of this?

It may be time to consider trading Ovechkin for the betterment of his career and the state of the Capitalsespecially with CapGeek.com indicating that his no-trade clause activates on July 1.

Alex Ovechkin Career Statistics
Season Goals PP Goals Assists Points
2005-06 52 21 54 106
2006-07 46 16 46 92
2007-08 65 22 47 112
2008-09 56 19 54 110
2009-10 50 13 59 109
2010-11 32 7 53 85
2011-12 38 13 27 65
2013 32 16 24 56
2013-14 51 24 28 79
Career totals 422 151 392 814

NHL.com

Capitals general manager George McPheeand owner Ted Leonsisessentially became partners for life when Ovechkin was given a 13-year, $124 million contract before the 2008-09 season. It's not as though he hasn't lived up to the agreement—he was won the Richard Trophy three times, the Hart Trophy twice and has 52 points in 51 playoff games.

Ovechkin is a unique and special individual, but it may be impossible to build a quality team around this particular individual.

Again, this is not heaping all the blame for this season or the demise of a once-dominant Capitals team over the past four years on Ovechkin. "It's not your fault," as Robin Williams said in Good Will Hunting.

McPhee deserves far more of it for firing Bruce Boudreau, letting Alexander Semin walk for absolutely nothing and trading Semyon Varlamov for a first-round pick that became Filip Forsberg, who was traded for Martin Erat, who then demanded a trade after scoring one goal in 53 games before he was shipped to Phoenix at this year's deadline for a draft pick.

Gene J. Puskar

That's some poor judgment reserved for those who get married and tattooed while heavily intoxicated during a bachelor party in Las Vegas.

It also doesn't help when a GM acquires what he believes to be top-six forwards at the deadlinelike Erat in 2013 and Dustin Penner in 2014and the coach uses them almost exclusively on the third or fourth lines. 

But those moves are what they are and they have left Ovechkin surrounded by the ruins of a team that once seemed poised to dominate the Eastern Conference for a long, long time.

It's not inaccurate to say Ovechkin looks disinterested, which likely stems from the fact that he's part of team that looks destined for mediocrity in the coming years and has no worries about a new contract any time soon.

Trading Ovechkin could be what cures the ails of this franchise, although McPhee may not be the one who should be allowed to make it.

Ovechkin will be 29 years old when the puck drops on the 2014-15 season and he is signed through 2020-21. He's not exactly a young man in professional hockey terms anymore and his value is arguably as high as it may get over the rest of his career.

What would do more to restore the gloryrelatively speakingof the Capitals: trading Ovechkin for a package of players and picks who can help now and in the future, or firing Oates and hiring a fourth coach in less than three years?

Would allowing Ovechkin a fresh start elsewhere and acquiring a haul of assets help the Capitals more in the long term or would hiring a new GM who would have to work around a superstar who isn't exactly idolized by his teammates be the better idea?

Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Perhaps a GM with some semblance of a plan—something McPhee seems to have lacked for quite some time now, and if he has one, it doesn't seem to match what Oates want to do—can hold on to Ovechkin and figure a way to build around him.

That's not entirely out of the question, but there just doesn't seem to a quick fix that's going to get the Capitals turned around next year or even in two years.

Let's say you believe Ovechkin lacks any flaws, that he's not a problem in the least and is the only reason the Capitals didn't finish this season with 65 points.

Well, how much longer will he play at that level? If you agree that there is no quick fix for the Capitals, what's the point of having someone of Ovechkin's caliber if there's no way to build a championship team around him while he's still at that level?

Should the Washington Capitals trade Alex Ovechkin during the offseason?

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I've defended Ovechkin for a very long time, but the time is now for the Capitals to cut ties with him and change the complexion of this team.

He is still a very, very good player—one of the best. If the Capitals don't trade Ovechkin now, they likely will never be unable to unload him and start fresh, something both sides clearly need.

Conversely, the Capitals could wait to find out he wants to "retire" a la Ilya Kovalchuk—remember, Ovechkin openly said he'd leave the Capitals to go play in Sochi if NHL players weren't allowed to compete in the 2014 Olympics—and get nothing for him. 

Again, there's a lot wrong with the Capitals and Ovechkin is one of the smaller problems, whether he's minus-35, minus-40 or minus-100.

If he can be used to fix those problems in a fair trade—hello, top-pairing defenseman—though, the Capitals owe it to themselves and their fans to consider pulling the trigger before Ovechkin can veto deals this summer.

Or before he decides he wants to join Kovalchuk in Russia.

 

Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @DaveLozo.

All statistics via NHL.com and ExtraSkater.com.

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