Ovechkin’s Deal Means Chase for Gretzky Is On

On the eve of the free-agent frenzy, the Washington Capitals made the least surprising signing by inking captain Alex Ovechkin to a five-year deal worth $47.5 million, likely keeping the Russian star with the team through the end of his NHL career.

Despite the expiration of his 13-year contract, there was little doubt Ovechkin would leave Washington, with the delay likely being to preserve another forward from the Seattle Kraken’s expansion pickings, namely Daniel Sprong.

Now, with the Capitals’ core aging, what do the last five years of Ovechkin’s career entail?

Ovechkin’s Value Off the Ice

Clearly, Washington’s window for a second Stanley Cup championship is getting tight, as with a flat salary cap, the Capitals are going to be feeling the pinch until the number begins to go back up – which could take several years.

Alex Ovechkin Washington Capitals
Alex Ovechkin’s 5-year deal actually sees his cap hit go down from his 13-year contract. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Since winning the Stanley Cup in 2018, Washington has failed to get out of the first round, and, in its last two playoff trips, they only managed to win a single game. Despite some strong regular-season performances, the Caps have been outworked and outperformed in net, and the goaltending issue will be a serious liability for the team going forward.

Ovechkin’s 2020-21 season was marked by a trip to the COVID-19 list and an injury, but he still led the Capitals with 24 goals in 45 games, despite missing 11 contests. Ovechkin’s last two regular-season goals on April 17 moved him to 730 all-time, just one shy of Marcel Dionne for fifth on the NHL’s goal-scoring list.

So, with the team perhaps not quite the powerhouse they were a couple of seasons ago, Ovechkin likely will also be turning his eye to trying to move up the NHL’s goal-scoring list, perhaps taking aim at Wayne Gretzky’s 894 career tallies by the time the contract is done.

Ovechkin’s worth to the Capitals also extends beyond the rink as well, as he helped take what was a regional franchise when he arrived in 2004, to a staple of national television and the Washington sports scene. In fact, when Ovechkin’s contract is done in 2026, he will have spent 21 seasons with the Capitals, which would rank second in the city’s sports history to only Washington Senators pitcher Walter Johnson, who spent 21 seasons on the diamond with the franchise, and also would surpass Darrell Green, who spent 20 seasons with the Washington Football Team.

As Ovechkin helped the Capitals become a Stanley Cup contender (and winning it in 2018), sellouts became the norm at Capital One Arena and youth hockey boomed in the region, with several local products being taken in the NHL Draft the last few years, many of whom who watched Ovechkin growing up.

With Ovechkin’s arrival in Washington, sellouts became the normal at Capital One Arena. (THW)

“Alex is a world-class athlete who will forever be regarded not only for leading the team to achieve our ultimate goal of winning the Stanley Cup, but also for inspiring the next generation of fans and youth players,” Capitals owner Ted Leonsis said in the team’s press release announcing the deal. “The impact Alex has had on hockey in D.C. extends well beyond Capital One Arena. His performance on the ice has undoubtedly sparked countless new fans of the game and inspired more youth players to lace up skates of their own. Off the ice, Alex’s impact is equally unmatched.”

“Not only is he committed to the franchise, but also to the community, and we look forward to seeing him in the Capitals uniform for years to come.”

“Alex is the face of our franchise and is committed to this organization and this city,” said Washington general manager Brian MacLellan. “Alex embodies what our franchise is all about, and we’re thrilled that he will continue his career in the Caps uniform for the next five years.”

Can Ovechkin Catch ‘The Great One’?

Now, the question for fans who speculated that Ovechkin would land a three or four-year deal, with an extra season, will he make a serious run at Gretzky?

Alex Ovechkin 700 goals
Washington Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin celebrates his 700th goal, Feb. 22, 2020 (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

He trails Gretzky by 164 goals, and would need to score an average of 33 goals per season to surpass him by the final season of his new deal. Certainly at his career pace of 0.61 goals per game – or even this year’s pace of 0.53 per game – it wouldn’t be a problem, but in this case, the main obstacle will be father time, as he will be 41 years old – the same age Zdeno Chara was this year – by the end of the deal.

In his career, Ovechkin has scored fewer than 33 goals just once in a full season, notching 32 in 2010-11, and only below that three times including short seasons (32 in 2012-13 and 24 last year), and has been healthy for the bulk of his career, missing 11 games last year which was a career-high, no small feat considering his physical style of play.

His style of play has also changed, as instead of goals on the rush, he makes frequent trips to his office to blast one-timers on net, which certainly is a more sustainable method of goal scoring as he ages, as even if the opponent knows what is coming, it still is very difficult to stop.

What a Five-Year Deal Means

The fifth year of the contract is intriguing, as it probably serves two purposes for Ovechkin and the Capitals.

Wayne Gretzky #99 of the Edmonton Oilers
Gretzky scored 894 during his NHL career with Edmonton, Los Angeles, St. Louis and the Rangers, leaving Ovechkin 164 goals shy entering 2021-22. (Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images)

First, the rumored deal of four years for $12 million apiece would have netted Ovechkin $48 million – this five-year deal is just $500,000 less and allows the team to push his cap hit down by $2.5 million per year – no small fact for a team that will be bumping up against the cap. In fact, Ovechkin’s deal will be $38,462 less than his hit from his last deal, and in essence gives Ovechkin the money he wants and allows the Capitals some flexibility.

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Should the chase for Gretzky seem out of reach and the Capitals not be a contender by the end of the fourth year, it is quite possible Washington and Ovechkin figure out a way to end the deal, either through retirement from the NHL or another maneuver, as it is expected Ovechkin’s final season won’t be in the NHL, but in the KHL with Moscow Dynamo.

The fifth year allows Ovechkin to make a more serious effort at Gretzky, as four years would have been a tight fit, but 33 goals a year is certainly within reason for Ovechkin, particularly if he can pass Gordie Howe’s 801 by the end of 2022-23 or beginning of the 2023-24 campaigns.

Ovechkin has accomplished a lot during his NHL career, with a Stanley Cup ring, three Hart Trophies and a Conn Smythe, and now it appears he indeed will take his shot at unseating Gretzky from the NHL’s leaderboard. He certainly is capable of doing so, but he will need to stay healthy and avoid a significant drop-off in production as he ages.