Why the Caps never have to worry about overpaying Ovechkin originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington
Alex Ovechkin has only one year remaining on his current contract and, according to general manager Brian MacLellan, talks have been tabled until training camp. While some fans may be nervous, there really is no reason to be. Ovechkin recently affirmed his commitment to the Capitals. Really the only other team he has any interest in playing for is Dynamo Moscow, not anyone else in the NHL. That just leaves us with two more pressing questions: How long will Ovechkin stay and how much will it cost?
There is no way to definitively answer the first question without speculating. Sure, I think Ovechkin is going to stay in the NHL as long as he is a productive player. I think Dynamo Moscow will always be there as an option whenever he chooses to leave so there’s no real rush for him to return to Russia just yet. I think winning another Stanley Cup and chasing Wayne Gretzky’s goal record are both important to him.
These are things I think having covered him, but ultimately it is up to Ovechkin to decide how much each of these factors matter.
As for how much the Caps will pay him, the answer is simple: It doesn’t matter.
What? How could it not matter!? Washington is a cap team! How could it not matter what the player with the highest cap hit on the team will make on his next contract?
It doesn’t because of what it means for the team’s championship window.
Let’s take Ovechkin’s name out of this for a second. Does it sound smart to sign a 35-year-old player to a contract with a cap hit expected to be somewhere around $9.5 to $10.5 million? No, it doesn’t. I am not saying the Caps should no re-sign Ovechkin or that he’s not worth that cap hit, I’m merely pointing out that a players’ production is going to start to decline at some point in his 30s. You may be tempted to think that this is not true for the all-time greats, but even among the elites what Ovechkin is doing is almost unprecedented.
When you look at the the top ten leading goalscorers of all time, after they turned 30 they scored 45 or more goals in a single season season only 16 times combined. Hockey Reference defines being 30 as turning 30 by Feb. 1 in a season.
At the age of 35, Ovechkin already accounts for four of those 16 seasons. That is tied for the most with Mike Gartner. Neither Wayne Gretzky nor Gordie Howe scored 45 goals in any season after turning 30.
What this means is that Ovechkin is playing with house money. Even the Great 8 can’t outrun Father Time forever. Ovechkin is not going to be scoring 50 goals in the NHL at the age of 40. Some time between now and then, his production will start to decline. If the Caps give Ovechkin a four or five-year contract, then at some point they are going to be stuck paying a superstar contract to a player who no longer scores at a superstar pace.
This is a conundrum teams in every sport face. When do you walk away from an all-time great, franchise player? It’s hard to do. Analytics say you move on because that player cannot live up to another big-time contract, while nostalgia (and often the fans) demand you give those franchise greats whatever they want to make sure they never put on another team’s jersey.
It may look like the Capitals are in this situation, but they’re really not.
Here are three facts we need to accept. First, as I mentioned, Ovechkin is not going to be an elite superstar player forever. Second, when he no longer is that player, the championship window for this generation of the Caps will officially be closed. Third, the Caps are going to have to go through a transition in the post-Ovechkin era. They will not simply continue on as contenders without at least a partial rebuild.
Washington as a team is completely built around Ovechkin. Of the eight goals the Caps scored in their first round matchup against New York Islanders, Ovechkin scored four of them and assisted on another one.The year prior, Ovechkin scored four of the team’s 20 goals against the Carolina Hurricanes and added another five assists.
The Caps have plenty of firepower, but not enough when Ovechkin ceases to be a superstar. When that happens, a team whose depth scoring is a question mark will be losing its top goal scorer. A team with questions on defense won’t be able to rely nearly as much on its offense, particularly the top six, to carry the team through.
The bottom line is that when age dictates that Ovechkin is no longer one of the top offensive threats in the game, the championship window will close firmly shut. He is the straw that stirs the drink. He is what makes this team a contender.
As for the third point, the Caps have been consistently ranked either at or near the bottom for their farm system in the offseason. The cupboard is not bare with players like Connor McMichael, Hendrix Lapierre, Martin Fehervary and Alex Alexeyev who will one day join young players like Jakub Vrana and Tom Wilson on the NHL roster. The Caps have a lot of promising young players, but other teams have more.
So what does this have to do with Ovechkin’s next contract? When Ovechkin’s time as a superstar is done, when his production can no longer live up to the cap hit he is expected to receive, it doesn’t matter because that will mark the point in which the team transitions from contender to rebuild.
Contracts hurt when it becomes detrimental to the team being able to achieve its goals. Even if Ovechkin’s production does fall off a cliff, that doesn’t matter because that when it is time to move salary, move veterans and bring in draft picks and prospects. At that point, Ovechkin’s cap hit won’t hinder that.
It may not sound like it, but this is good news. This means the Caps can re-sign Ovechkin without fear of his new contract hurting them in the future, the team can give him a well-deserved contract with a sizable cap hit despite him being 35 and no one has to worry about Ovechkin spending the last few years of his career playing for another NHL team. The one possible complication is the fact that this will be a 35-plus contract. Since he is already 35, this contract means Ovechkin’s full cap hit will remain on the books in Washington for the remainder of his contract regardless of whether he is playing or not. If he retires or goes to Russia, his cap hit will continue to count towards the cap ceiling.
But really, this would only be an issue with a five-year, possibly four-year contract which could bridge the gap between this generation of Caps and the next, but that’s only if Ovechkin’s decline starts right away and even then, the rebuild would have to go really smoothly if in four or five years the team will feel that Ovechkin’s contract is hindering their ability to put a championship roster together. Otherwise, there is no reason to worry about Ovechkin’s cap hit. The only time it could start to hurt is when it no longer matters.