- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 30, 2014

It was the most important question when Adam Oates was hired two years ago to coach the Capitals and it remains so today with the organization in flux — its general manager position now open, its coach fired.

What, exactly, does Washington do with star winger Alex Ovechkin? He is its highest-paid player, the face of the franchise and remains an elite goal scorer. But while he led the NHL with 51 goals this season, Ovechkin also finished a career-worst minus-35.

That stat is flawed because it lacks context: Who was on the ice with Ovechkin when the opponent scored, how did the goalies perform behind him? But it still isn’t good and has already been used by Ovechkin’s critics to show that Washington can’t win a Stanley Cup if the team is built around him. That’s not a stance his former general manager publicly agreed with this week.

“If you’re asking me if we can win with [Ovechkin], I believed we could win with him,” George McPhee said on Monday at his goodbye press conference two days after being informed he would not have his contract renewed.

Ovechkin has seven years left on a 13-year contract signed in 2008. He will make $10 million next season, the first time his salary rises after six years at $9 million. That built-in raise bumps him to the fifth-highest paid player in the NHL.

The salary cap hit on the contract is $9.538 million, which remains the sport’s highest. Ovechkin turns 29 in September. The Caps’ next general manager has options if he decides a full rebuild is in order.

Ovechkin’s modified no-trade clause doesn’t begin until July 1, according to the website CapGeek.com. At that point he can list 10 teams he will not go to and update that list every September until the end of the contract. But prior to that, any team in the league is in play. Not that Ovechkin is asking to leave.

“That’s why I signed [a long contract],” Ovechkin said at breakdown day on April 14 before the organizational changes. “I feel comfortable, I love the fans, I love the city. This organization gave me a lot and I want to bring [a Stanley] Cup here.”

Trading its star player would be a radical departure. On Saturday Washington owner Ted Leonsis insisted that his executives “are deeply empowered” to make the changes they deem necessary to fix the club, but said only that he and team president Dick Patrick would listen to any proposal.

“I’m not the general manager,” Leonsis said. “So if a general manager comes with something, we would listen to the general manager. But I’m not the general manager.”

That doesn’t sound like an owner intent on seeing his franchise player moved. What Leonsis did say is that his team has the resources to win a Stanley Cup. Indeed, the Caps have been near the NHL’s salary-cap ceiling for years, including this season’s $64.3 million limit. That is expected to rise to above $70 million for next year.

McPhee noted that he left his successor with few long-term commitments other than Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom’s contracts. While 20 current players who finished this past season on the 23-man roster are under contract already for next year, that number drops to eight for the 2015-16 season with another four being restricted free agents. That gives financial flexibility to the new GM, who can quickly turn over his lineup without necessarily needing to resort to trades.

“The last two seasons showed us that we need to improve,” Leonsis said. “That’s what it came down to that where Dick and I said ‘We have to make that gut check. Do we have to change?’ And where do you start? You start with the coach and the general manager. And that’s literally all this has come to.”

Assuming Ovechkin remains part of the new front office’s plans, the trick is putting the pieces in place to maximize his skill set. Oates helped reinvigorate Ovechkin’s game at even strength by switching him to right wing two years ago.

His coaching staff also helped fix a once-vaunted power play that had dipped to 18th in the NHL in 2011-12, but rebounded to best in the league each of the past two seasons. Those changes helped Ovechkin score 83 goals in 126 games under Oates, 40 of those on the power play.

The challenge for the next coaching staff is to keep that momentum going, earn enough of Ovechkin’s trust to make him at least a passable presence in his own end and hope the new GM finds a way to improve Washington’s blueline depth, which was a glaring weakness in 2013-14.

“The criticism goes unfairly,” Patrick said. “[It is] tilted towards him when we’re not winning because people are saying ‘Well, you’ve got Alex Ovechkin, how come you haven’t won a Cup?’ It does take a team. It takes 20 guys. But how can be unhappy with what Alex Ovechkin’s accomplished and continues to accomplish in the National Hockey League?”