It may not have been easy, but it would have been rational for Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis to shy away from the record-setting 13-year, $124 million contract just given to Alexander Ovechkin.
Despite the fact that Ovechkin is a one-of-a-kind talent, with the moxie and positive attitude to perfectly compliment his highlight-reel game, Leonsis had ample reasons to put his hands back in his pockets instead of ponying up.
Even with Ovechkin on the roster for the past three seasons, dazzling fans by scoring goals from his back, the Capitals' attendance has been among the worst in the league. Washington ranks 29th out of 30 teams this season and the previous two years were no better. Despite boasting one of the top two players in the NHL, the Caps were 27th in 2006-07 and 28th in 2005-06.
By comparison, when they're on the road this season the Caps are the 10th best draw in the league. Last season they were fifth. That figure is all the more impressive considering Washington spends the majority of its road games in the Southeast Division, where both Florida and Atlanta rank in the league's bottom third at the turnstiles and Carolina ranks 19th.
The immediate, if not accurate, conclusion is that the rest of the NHL's markets appreciate Ovechkin's talent far more than Washington, D.C. Of course, perhaps the rest of the North American markets just appreciate hockey more than the District does. That brings us to reason number two for Leonsis to keep his cash.
Averaging 13,890 fans a game since the start of the 2005-06 season, the Caps' accountants are no strangers to red ink when it comes to the yearly ledgers. This offseason Leonsis re-invested in the team for the first time since unloading Jaromir Jagr, Robert Lang, Sergei Gonchar, Peter Bondra and anyone else that happened to be loitering in the locker room in 2003-04. This summer Leonsis spent money to bring in Viktor Kozlov, Tom Poti and Michael Nylander. The thanks he got was an 8-17-2 start from the team and — to this point — a drop in average attendance.
The reasons to re-sign perhaps the greatest player in today's NHL are obvious, but so too were the reasons for Leonsis to take a pass. After two years of rebuilding, the wins still weren't coming, revenue was still down and so was attendance. It would have been easy for Leonsis to instruct General Manager George McPhee to shop Ovechkin on the trade market. Such a deal would have traded the impending massive contract for the draft picks and the cheap, talented youngsters the Caps have so highly valued of late. He would have also avoided the opportunity of being burned like he was by Jaromir Jagr's seven-year, $77 million monster contract, which Leonsis is still paying while Jagr plays for the Rangers.
It wouldn't be the first time a team had taken such salary-dumping measures. Last offseason the Buffalo Sabres, a market that packed 70,000-plus fans into a football stadium for a game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, let both of their star free agents, Daniel Briere and Chris Drury walk away rather than sign them to high priced deals — the star forwards signed for eight years, $52 million and five years, $35.25 million respectively.
But Leonsis weighed all of those considerations — the revenue, the attendance, the record — and stuck to his oft-repeated statement that Alex Ovechkin would be a Capital for a long, long time. Furthermore, he gave Ovechkin the kind of deal that makes other owners roll their eyes when they're trying to convince fans that they “just don't have the money” to spend on their own star players.
An investment of this kind doesn't necessarily require an additional bulk order of red ball-point pens though. While the Caps have tried almost everything to get fans in the seats at Verizon Center, there's one thing the team hasn't done since Ovechkin donned the Washington sweater — win consistently. That's why I have to believe the Ovechkin deal is just the beginning of a new phase of the Caps' revitalization.
As well as the Caps have played since Bruce Boudreau assumed the coaching reins on Thanksgiving, it's apparent that the team still needs more firepower to bring home the Stanley Cup. Defenseman Mike Green, by far the most egregious All-Star snub, is up for a contract and almost certainly must be re-signed. Some more depth for the scoring lines wouldn't hurt either. With Ovechkin on board, the Caps have their centerpiece, now it's time to garnish it.
So, take a bow, Ted Leonsis. You deserve every pat on the back you get this week from Capitals fans thrilled to tears that the greatest player this town has ever seen will be under contract for the next 13 years. Enjoy the cheers too, because things won't get any easier for you in the wake of this signing.