Ovechkin’s Free Agency Shouldn’t Take Him Anywhere Else

With the Washington Capitals’ season is over after a five-game first-round loss to the Boston Bruins, the next big question for the club is what happens to unrestricted free-agent Alex Ovechkin, whose 13-year, $124 million contract comes to an end this summer.

While normally a player of Ovechkin’s talent and marketing potential of hitting free agency would create a stir as he would be an instant hit for whatever team he signed with, in reality, the chances of the Russian star going anywhere else in the NHL are about the same as Tom Wilson winning the Lady Byng this summer.

The most likely case for the Capitals and Ovechkin is that a framework to a deal has been worked out already, and the team will officially file the contract with the league shortly after the Seattle Kraken expansion draft has been completed on July 21.

Why? Well, it’s simple. If the Capitals and Ovechkin put a deal in place before that date, it doesn’t do them a whole lot of good and then would require Washington to use a spot to protect Ovechkin from the Kraken. If they don’t have a deal in place as of the expansion draft, while Seattle could use a pick to take Ovechkin’s current expiring contract from Washington and hope they could sign him in the small window they would have before the deal officially ends, the Caps would be free to file the deal when he becomes a free agent a week after the draft.

Ovechkin hasn’t used an agent since firing Don Meehan back in 2006 and will be negotiating his next deal himself, so there isn’t the usual trying to stir up other potential bidders and drive his price tag up as a representative might do. Likewise, the team appears comfortable with their captain’s demands are and it seems very likely a deal has been structured and will be finalized and will be made official shortly after the Kraken fill out their roster.

Expansion Precedent

There is a precedent for this particular tactic with the Capitals, as back in 2017 when the Vegas Golden Knights entered the league. That year, T.J. Oshie’s contract expired. While there was talk, the two had quietly agreed to parameters of a deal before the team’s second-round playoff exit to the Pittsburgh Penguins that year, no deal was announced before Vegas made their selections for their inaugural season roster on July 21.

T.J. Oshie Washington Capitals
T.J. Oshie’s last contract shows a possible blueprint to the timing of Alex Ovechkin’s next one. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Washington didn’t protect Oshie as a UFA, and the Golden Knights didn’t risk taking the forward and losing him for nothing on July 1 and selected defenseman Nate Schmidt instead. Two days after the Vegas picks were announced, Washington announced the eight-year, $46 million contract with Oshie, which allowed general manager Brian MacLellan to effectively protect him from the Knights and allowed the team to use an extra forward slot to keep Andre Burakovsky and Tom Wilson from possibly being selected by Vegas.

With Ovechkin not needing to be protected from Seattle, the Capitals could then choose to protect either seven forwards, and three defensemen or eight skaters total, and not have to worry about Ovechkin leaving, giving them some flexibility depending on how they want to proceed and essentially allowing them to control an extra player then would be allowed if the deal was finalized before then.

Mutually Beneficial Arrangement in D.C.

Both Ovechkin and the Capitals have benefitted from their relationship that started back at the 2004 NHL Draft. Washington used their No. 1 overall selection to help sell tickets and deliver regular sellouts, and build what had been a struggling regional franchise into a national television staple and an annual Stanley Cup contender – including the franchise’s first title in 2018. Ovechkin has been able to play in a place where the team was built around him, and after committing to the team in an unprecedented 13-year deal back in 2008, he ended up making a permanent home in the sports landscape of the nation’s capital.

Alex Ovechkin
Ovechkin brought a Stanley Cup to Washington – along with a ton of revenue for the Capitals. (AP Photo/John Locher, File)

Back in 2003, when the Capitals elected to undergo a rebuild that landed that top pick in the NHL Draft, the team was valued by Forbes at $130 million, 18th overall among NHL teams. This past year, the magazine valued the Caps at $750 million, and ninth overall, increasing over four times in less than two decades. A lot of that sizeable increase is the revenue that Ovechkin helps generate for the team, and it’s a mutually beneficial arrangement for both parties, with both sides very comfortable with each other.

With Ovechkin trying to chase down Wayne Gretzky’s goal-scoring record in the later years of his career, as well as seeing if he can lead what surely will be a different-looking Capitals team in his final NHL seasons to another Stanley Cup, it would seem the likely target for a potential contract would be in the $10-12 million range per season for four to six years.

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While Ovechkin certainly would be overpaid for his ability at a near-max contract as he will be 36 next season, the deal likely would be framed as a make-good contract for the captain, as while his contract’s cap hit of just north of $9.5 million was high early on in the deal, it became more of a bargain as the years progressed and his playing ability didn’t decline much despite the hard mileage of his career.

The Capitals also have to be mindful of the salary cap, so they could decide to spread the cap hit over a longer period of time than they expect Ovechkin to suit up for Washington and front-load the deal so whatever money he’d earn in, say, a four-year deal would go into five or six years, with the contract front-loaded so any money at the end would be minimal if they decide to part ways after a certain point. Like with the Oshie deal, which is longer than the expected value of the remaining years of his productive career, it would allow the team to reduce the hit while the cap stays flat the next few seasons.

There had been talk about a potential deal being worked on early this season, and both sides may have the parameters worked out even as the talk from the two sides had quieted as the team was gearing up for its playoff run. But with the expansion draft coming and little chance of Ovechkin signing an NHL deal with another club, there is little incentive for the deal to be announced before Seattle makes its picks in July.

While there is a lot of uncertainty over what the Capitals do this summer, there shouldn’t be any confusion over the future of its captain, as a deal likely will be announced in late July before the free-agent frenzy. And, while it is likely Ovechkin will finish his career pulling on another jersey, it’s likely going to be the one of Moscow Dynamo in the KHL once his NHL career is finished – several years down the line.

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