In nine of their 12 seasons together, Ovechkin and the Capitals have reached the playoffs without getting past the second round. In three of those seasons, including the past two, they finished with the best regular-season record in the NHL, only to suffer the embarrassment of a premature playoff exit.
Two weeks after completing his third season as Capitals general manager, one that ended with a Game 7 home loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, Brian MacLellan acknowledged for the first time that while he is not actively shopping the Capitals' all-time leading goal scorer, he would consider a "legitimate hockey deal" involving his 31-year-old captain.
"I think it's a lot easier to make this team worse than it is better," MacLellan told reporters earlier this week. "If you make a major change, what's it going to involve? Trading a franchise player? Blowing the whole thing up? I don't know that that makes sense."
From a financial standpoint, it might. Ovechkin, who will turn 32 in September, has four years and $40 million remaining on his 13-year, $124 million contract with the Capitals. His $9.538 million cap hit is the fourth-highest in the NHL (behind Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Anze Kopitar) and for a team that has just 11 players from its 2016-17 roster under contract for next season, eliminating part or all of Ovechkin's salary would clear the cap space necessary to re-sign free-agent forwards T.J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky, among others.
Before making a deal for Ovechkin, MacLellan also would need to consider a potential backlash from a fan base that has embraced the Russian superstar like no other hockey player before him. Once near the bottom of the NHL in attendance, the Capitals have sold out 364 consecutive games at the Verizon Center, and few would argue Ovechkin is not the primary reason. Capitals majority owner Ted Leonsis is one of Ovechkin's most ardent supporters -- he has promised to let his star play in next year's Winter Olympics, even though the NHL has declined participation -- and would need to be convinced the return on Ovechkin is high enough to offset the loss of his marketing power.
There is also the issue of Ovechkin's no-movement clause, which allows him to give the Caps an annual list of 10 teams to which he will not accept a trade, limiting MacLellan's options to 20 teams now that the expansion Vegas Golden Knights are in the mix.
That said, here is a list of five NHL teams that might make a pitch for Ovechkin -- and the players who could be involved to get him:
The Stars have $16 million in cap space with 16 roster players under contract for next season. Having missed the playoffs one year after finishing with the best record in the Western Conference, the Stars are in win-now mode and could use a scoring machine on the left side to complement center Jamie Benn and right winger Tyler Seguin.
The Stars own a pair of first-round picks in this month's draft -- No. 3 and No. 29, acquired from the Anaheim Ducks in the Patrick Eaves trade. Many project defenseman Miro Heiskanen as the third-overall pick, behind forwards Nolan Patrick and Nico Hischier.
Could the Stars send that pick -- or, more likely, the 29th-overall pick -- along with a veteran forward such as former Capitals draft pick Cody Eakin (three years, $3.85 million cap hit) or Antoine Roussel (one year, $2 million) to the Caps for Ovechkin? To do so, new Stars coach Ken Hitchcock would need to sign off on the deal and, quite frankly, Ovechkin and the meticulous Hitchcock don't seem like the perfect match.
The Flames returned to the Stanley Cup playoffs this season and would do almost anything to keep pace with their provincial rivals in Edmonton. Ovechkin would eat up nearly half of their $28.1 million in cap space, but he'd be a nice addition to a lineup that includes dynamic forwards Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan.
The Flames would need to shed salary in the deal, and with three years and $13.5 million remaining on his contract, former Capitals right winger Troy Brouwer could be offered a return trip to D.C. Of course, the Caps would want a first-round pick or a top prospect in the deal. And since the Flames have just one pick in the first three rounds (16th overall), the Caps could demand rookie Matthew Tkachuk, who has a little Dale Hunter in him.
Ovechkin has been known to frequent Miami in his free time, and he'd help sell tickets in the Sunshine State -- who wouldn't want to see him and Jaromir Jagr on the same team? -- while giving the Panthers a scoring threat to go along with playmakers Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov and Vincent Trocheck.
The Panthers have plenty of young talent that would interest the Caps, including forwards Reilly Smith and Nick Bjugstad. And with less than $11 million left under the cap, they'd need a salary like Smith's (five years, $25 million) or Bjugstad's (four years, $16.4 million) to go the other way in order to fit Ovechkin. Panthers general manager Dale Tallon needs to have a coach in place before considering a deal for the star, but one of his candidates, Todd Reirden, worked with Ovechkin the past three years as an assistant coach in D.C.
Who wouldn't like to see Jack Eichel or Ryan O'Reilly setting up Ovechkin for one-timers in the left circle? The Sabres are in desperate need of veteran leadership and on-ice physicality -- and with a few tweaks they could quickly climb the Eastern Conference standings.
Buffalo has plenty of cap space ($22.8 million) and an abundance of draft picks (five in the first three rounds) and would probably be willing to give up Evander Kane, plus a high pick and a prospect, for a chance to land Ovechkin. But would Jason Botterill make such a risky move in his first summer as an NHL general manager? Not likely.
Vegas Golden Knights
This would take real creativity between MacLellan and Golden Knights GM George McPhee, who were college teammates at Bowling Green. As the former general manager in Washington, McPhee witnessed first-hand Ovechkin's ability to fill the seats, then bring fans out of them with dazzling rushes up the ice. McPhee also has on his roster one of the most talented players from the KHL, Vadim Shipaychyov, who played alongside Ovechkin on Russian national teams.
The problem, of course, is that the Knights have no one else to offer the Capitals -- at least as of this writing. That will change in a few weeks. What if the Knights landed Jakob Silfverberg in the expansion draft? What if they acquired the rights (or signed as free agents) Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, with the sole intention of trading them? McPhee is a very crafty general manager and could use his expansive salary cap to acquire an abundance of assets he intends to sell as the summer unfolds.