Capitals

Caps Mailbag: What does the future hold for Evgeny Kuznetsov?

Capitals
Evgeny Kuznetsov

It's time to hear from you, the fans, and answer what's on your mind in the Capitals Mailbag.

If you have a question for the mailbag, send it in to capitalsmailbag@gmail.com

Please note, some questions have been edited for clarity.

Justin C. writes: Vitek Vanecek's issues at the goaltender position are now well documented. Do you think they are coachable and/or will experience help him overcome his weaknesses? Speaking of goalies, do you see Ilya Samsonov making more starts against better competition as the season moves along, or has his absence essentially relegated him to Vanecek's backup at this point? 

The fact that Vanecek has made it this far is a testament to how coachable he is. I have seen him in training camps, preseasons and a handful of Hershey games and there were times when I wondered if he would even be able to survive in the AHL. The improvement we have seen in his game is undeniable so yes, I think some of his issues can be coachable. He has already exceeded my expectations to prove he is an NHL goalie, perhaps he could take the next step and prove himself to be a No. 1 at the NHL level as well.

 

I wouldn't say Samsonov is the backup at this point, but he is now in a position where he will have to earn his ice time. Coming into the year, I think he was the clear No. 1 and now that is no longer the case. Head coach Peter Laviolette was pretty consistent early on that there was no real plan in net, he just wanted to see each goalie play and they split the first four games. Recently, he has spoken more on how he is more willing to ride the hot hand.

Samsonov is going to get his chances, but clearly Laviolette is not going to just sit around and wait for him to play like a No. 1 again. If Vanecek outplays him, we are not going to see a 50/50 split.

Austen B. writes: Alex Ovechkin has 7 goals after 18 GP. In his chase for Wayne Gretzky, I figured 35 this season would be the goal to keep him on pace for that feat. Given what we've seen so far, is that too lofty? Do you think his scoring ability is an unfortunate casualty of Laviolette's new system?

Josh M. writes: Do you think Ovechkin will start getting some puck luck and having some multiple-goal games to get back on a 30-35 goal pace at least? Why does Peter Laviolette refuse to use him/his stars in situational hockey (ENGs/3on3)?

Ovechkin has only seven goals in 18 games which would put him on pace for about 31 goals in a full 82-game season. But yes, I do expect a surge at some point and it's not just about recent history, it's because despite his lack of scoring he has still been productive and noticeable on the ice.

Ovechkin may have only seven goals, but he still has 17 points, so nearly a point-per-game pace. Watching him play, there doesn't seem to be any noticeable dropoff in his game, the puck just isn't going in the net the way it usually seems to for him. I don't think this is about Laviolette's system either. Earlier in his career, I think the way the team is playing may have hurt him a bit, but Ovechkin scores so many more deflection and rebound goals than he used to, goals from the dirty areas of the ice as he continues to evolve his game and that plays into what Laviolette wants to do. It really does feel to me like it's just a matter of time before we see another goal surge.

Related: Why Peter Laviolette isn't concerned about Alex Ovechkin's lack of scoring

As for situational hockey, let's not forget that Laviolette played Ovechkin for over 27 minutes on Feb. 4 against the New York Rangers so if you think there's a lack of trust there, I don't see that at all.

 

I don't like to speculate about these types of things so I am just going to list a few facts here. On Feb. 23, the Caps and Penguins went into overtime. The overtime lasted only 1:43, but Ovechkin did not play any of that. Two days later, he played only 16:04 in a rematch with Pittsburgh -- his third-lowest TOI of the season -- and then did not practice on Friday due to "maintenance." Later that day, the team declared him as a game-time decision for Saturday's game.

Take that for what you will.

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Frederick R. writes: I am a rabid Caps fan who was born inside the District, but has lived in Boston for the past five years. In my opinion, the eye test has not given Chara a passing grade outside of special teams. Yet, reporters only speak about his legacy, work ethic and communication. When will they discuss his analytics, statistics, and film breakdowns? I would love to be disproved! The Caps have been playing inconsistent and slow, so why not allow the 7th and 8th defensemen a chance over Chara?

Let’s first look at the eye test based on what I see and then dive into the analytics. There have been a few turnovers from Chara, but I would not say to the degree that you think. I feel he has been as consistent as everyone else through the team’s overall inconsistent play. I’m not pinning that all on him.

Here’s the most important thing I have noticed so far. Chara has never been the most mobile player and is now 43. Yet, despite how much we have talked about the Caps’ struggles with speed early on, how many times have we seen Chara get burned or caught out of position? It’s rare if it happens at all. Jonas Siegenthaler is a much more mobile defenseman. If Peter Laviolette thought Chara could not handle the speed of the faster teams they are facing, then we would have seen Siegenthaler get more games. That has not been the case.

OK, so we clearly differ on the eye test so let’s look at the analytics. All of these numbers are 5-on-5 and come from Natural Stat Trick.

Chara's expected goals-for percentage is 52.2%, the second-highest among the team's defensemen. His actual goals-for percentage is 61.3%, also the second-highest on the team. That's not because of sheltered minutes either as his offensive zone start percentage and offensive zone faceoff percentage both rank sixth among the defensemen.

 

Basically, the Caps are scoring significantly more goals than they are giving up when Chara is on the ice, despite him being used in more defensive situations. They are also getting more scoring chances (50.2%) and high-danger scoring chances (54.3%).

So pretty much by any metric, the Caps play better with him on the ice. The one metric you can take issue with is his Corsi-For which is only at 48.3% which ranks sixth among the team defensemen. This, however, is easily explainable given the defensive situations he is used in, as I previously noted.

Corey M. writes: We keep hearing about Jonas Siegenthaler needing to be re-signed and as a future starter, etc., but why is he not playing more?  He plays well when in the lineup and frankly it looks like he’s going the way of Nate Schmidt. 

There is a big reason why Siegenthaler isn’t playing. A very big reason, as in 6-foot-9. If you had asked GM Brian MacLellan the plan for the defense as of November, I think he would have had Siegenthaler penciled into the lineup with maybe plans for a few games from Martin Fehervary sprinkled in. But then Chara became available and that plan changed. Even then, I don’t think anyone expected Chara to play every game through the first 21. With Brenden Dillon, Dmitry Orlov and Chara on the left, Siegenthaler has become the odd-man-out.

I don’t like that Siegenthaler has played in only six games this season, but Chara has surpassed pretty much all on-ice expectations.

But at some point, a player wants to see his career get going. Siegenthaler has been the victim of a deep roster for a few years now despite being good enough to play an everyday role as he showed last year playing in 64 out of 69 games. At some point, you have to trust in your young players, especially one who signed a one-year deal in the offseason probably in anticipation of playing more this season. He will turn 24 in May. If he is not in the team’s plans for next season, it is probably time for him and the team to contemplate his future in Washington.

 

Michael T. writes: Do you anticipate the Caps making any moves at or prior to the deadline or believe they will stand pat?

I believe they will look. Whether or not they are able to get a deal done is another story.

Every year it seems, we talk about how close to the cap Washington is and yet every year at the trade deadline, they manage to find room to make a move. This year, however, the Caps are using cap relief from long-term injured reserve. That essentially allows the team to go over the salary cap, but it also means the team can’t bank any cap space which is how they were always able to make those deadline moves.

What this means is that whatever salary the team may want to bring in, it has to ship out. Draft picks and prospects aren’t going to get this done. Also, considering how much emphasis MacLellan put on building up depth in the offseason, I don’t know if there is any position you could point to that he would see as a clear surplus.

If the Caps elected to add via a trade, the two areas of need would be center and goalie. Right now, when the Caps lose a center, they move T.J. Oshie over from the wing. That’s not going to cut it in the playoffs.

As for goalie, that leads to the next question.

Larry T. writes: Do you think the Caps will go for another veteran goalie for the playoffs, and if so, any predictions on who?

They are going to give as much rope to Samsonov and Vanecek as they can in the hopes that one of them looks like a playoff starter. These kinds of deals are difficult in a normal year, let alone a pandemic year with a flat salary cap, but if Vanecek and Samsonov both struggle, you can’t go into maybe this team’s final shot at a Cup with two goalies you don’t trust.

I think either Antti Raanta or Darcy Kuemper out of Arizona would be good targets, especially Raanta as his contract expires in 2021, but the first thing the Caps would need to ask is for the Coyotes to retain a fair bit of his $4.25 million cap hit, probably the full 50% allowed, just to get to a point where a deal is even possible.

 

Daniel G. writes: Could you see the Caps parting with Evgeny Kuznetsov to get Jack Eichel? Obviously you would need to sweeten the deal with a bunch more, but with Kuzy’s crater in production since 2018, his absolutely horrendous defensive numbers, and the Caps in a win-this-year-at-all-costs mode, would something like this make sense?

Josh M. writes: Can Caps package Kuznetsov and something for Eichel if he became available?

Let’s put aside the fact that the Caps would need to clear out an additional $2.2 million of cap room to fit Eichel’s $10 million cap hit and the fact that Kuznetsov has a modified no-trade clause.

Eichel is four years younger than Kuznetsov and, in my eyes, is better than Kuznetsov. So yes, a younger upgrade at a position of course would make sense for Washington. The real question is why would this make sense for Buffalo?

This is not a situation where one team is trading an established veteran for an unproven young talent, Eichel is proven. He’s there already. The only reason the Sabres would want to trade Eichel would be because they have decided to tear it all down and start the rebuild over. I don’t know how trading a 24-year-old center for a 28-year-old one helps with that. Obviously whatever package included would carry draft picks and prospects, but I just do see the value of a player like Kuznetsov in Buffalo unless they wanted to flip him to someone else. That would, however, take a level of planning and competency that the Sabres have not shown for quite some time.

Nathan S. writes: Do you expect to see Kuznetsov traded in season or after the season?

In season, certainly not. The team's center depth is weak enough as it is. Getting rid of Kuznetsov exacerbates the problem.

If you trade away Kuznetsov during the season for anything other than a top-line center, you are punting on this season. Period. Full stop.

"But what about Eller...."

"Connor McMichael looks great in Hershey, I bet he..."

Allow me to repeat: If you trade away Kuznetsov during the season for anything other than a top-line center, you are punting on this season.

Whether the team considers a move like this after the season will largely be dependent on the direction the franchise wants to go. If MacLellan still believes Washington has another kick at the can, then no, I don't think Kuznetsov gets traded. If it's a fire sale for a rebuild, then yes.

 

Lots of Kuznetsov questions this week.

I get why you would be reluctant to see a player like Oshie go. He provides such a spark to the team and to the locker room, but the fact of the matter is that he is 34 years old and has a cap hit of $5.75 million for the next four years after this one. The only way, in my mind, you could justify protecting him is if you believe a Stanley Cup is a realistic goal next season. If not, try to get out of that contract now before it hurts and it will given the flat salary cap.

As for Kuznetsov, if the team was ready to move on from him, the expansion draft would not be the best way to go. He is a 28-year-old, top-line center signed through the 2024-25 season so he would provide some cost control. There's value in that, enough value that exploring a trade for him would be the much wiser decision rather than exposing him to Seattle and potentially losing him for nothing.

Thanks for all your questions! If you have a question you want to be answered in the next mailbag, send it into capitalsmailbag@gmail.com