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International suspension over cocaine a wake-up call for Caps' Kuznetsov

International suspension over cocaine a wake-up call for Caps' Kuznetsov

The Capitals have a problem. 

With a rapidly closing championship window, coming off a first-round Stanley Cup playoff loss, there is pressure to take advantage while Alex Ovechkin remains at the top of his game and Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby are still under contract. 

No player was going to be watched more closely this upcoming season than center Evgeny Kuznetsov after an up-and-down campaign that left many in the organization frustrated. 

That takes on an ominous note after Kuznetsov was suspended four years by the International Ice Hockey Federation after testing positive for cocaine at the World Championships in May while playing for Russia.

Kuznetsov set the bar so high during the Capitals’ 2018 Stanley Cup playoff run. He is a brilliant talent who arguably was the best player in the world during that two-month stretch. Ovechkin won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. Kuznetsov easily could have. 

But things have gone sideways this summer. Kuznetsov and Russia won the bronze medal at the World Championships in Slovakia on May 26. One day later a video surfaced on Twitter showing Kuznetsov in a room where cocaine was clearly visible on a desk. He publically denied ever doing drugs. That was unwise. 

According to the IIHF timeline, Kuznetsov had already taken a drug test that he would fail. The date? May 26 when Russia beat the Czech Republic in the bronze-medal game. He was provisionally suspended by the IIHF on June 13 and that was confirmed on Friday. He’ll at some point have to explain why he bothered lying about it at all, but in the end, that’s just a PR embarrassment of his own creation.

The NHL’s collective bargaining agreement seeks to direct players into treatment for what it labels “drugs of abuse” and not punishment. That’s admirable. But when a player’s performance nosedives and he later fails a drug test, it’s fair to ask how intertwined they are. 

This isn’t marijuana, often used by professional athletes to ease pain or just relax. Cocaine still has a stigma attached to it. In recent years the NHL has acknowledged its increased use by players. 

To his credit, Kuznetsov is taking advantage of the treatment programs offered by the NHLPA and has agreed to increased testing. He has been in Washington for weeks, much earlier than normal for European players, and is taking part in informal workouts at the Capitals’ headquarters in Arlington. 

These are all good signs. We don’t know with absolute certainty why Kuznetsov used cocaine or how often he does or even if it negatively affected his play. It would be naïve to think he’s the only Capitals player dealing with this issue and it’s not about shaming drug use. This is serious stuff. But for Kuznetsov, it goes with a broader narrative: A gifted player who doesn’t always live up to the heavy expectations placed upon him.   

His own general manager, Brian MacLellan, has acknowledged that on the record multiple times. Expecting Kuznetsov to match his 2018 playoff form for an entire season would be crazy. Few can do that. But his own teammates will privately say there is more to give, that they NEED Kuznetsov at his best for longer stretches. If they hadn’t seen it from him for months at a time before, it wouldn’t be so frustrating.   

Kuznetsov said in the aftermath of the video release, which was taken in Las Vegas last December on a Capitals’ road trip there, that he made an error in judgment visiting some acquaintances in a hotel room and when he saw cocaine use going on, he left. 

The video isn’t that definitive. Kuznetsov is seen laughing and joking with an unidentified person on a video call. Rolled up dollar bills are in front of him with a white powder substance visible. He doesn’t exactly seem uptight or in a hurry to leave. 

Fast forward five months and you have the failed drug test to go with the video. One with real-world consequences. The NHL might not punish players for cocaine use, but Kuznetsov won’t be allowed to play for Russia for the balance of his prime. He just punted that away. If the NHL and the NHLPA come to an agreement about letting players participate in the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, Kuznetsov will not be there. That’s a devastating penalty. 

Kuznetsov is still just 27, the vanguard of the younger Caps like Tom Wilson, 25, and Jakub Vrana, 23, who all must shoulder a bigger load with Ovechkin turning 34 next month and Backstrom turning 32 in November. Those two were great in the playoffs against Carolina last spring and the Capitals wasted the effort. They know they wasted it. 

Washington can’t win another Cup without Kuznetsov playing close to the breathtaking level he found in 2018. But watch heads droop on the bench when he makes an awful drop pass just inside the blue line or gives up a great scoring chance simply because his intuitive hockey mind sees an even better one available. He is literally the worst player in the NHL regularly allowed to take faceoffs and it isn’t close. 

It speaks to a lack of concern about the details of the game, a lack of seriousness. Lose a face-off and we’ll just “get the puck back in two seconds,” Kuznetsov told the Washington Post in a feature story in February. 

Remember Kuznetsov’s infamous quote last October about not caring if he was ever in contention for a Hart Trophy? “To be MVP, you have to work hard 365 [days] in a year, but I’m not ready for that.”

From a player coming off an incredible postseason you let that slide. It isn’t quite what he meant and Kuznetsov is renowned for saying whatever the hell he wants. He’s a fascinating character, never boring, unselfish to a fault. Talk to him for any length of time and you get unique insights into the game. 

But a drug suspension, even if it isn’t at the NHL level, undermines all of that. Misleading the organization about it does, too, especially when you know the truth is probably coming out. It’s all a little reckless. These people need to know they can count on you. That’s the price of being a great player, that’s the cost of immense talent. Kuznetsov let them down. He let himself down. This coming season is now about making amends. 

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Projecting the Caps’ opening night roster after first round of cuts

Projecting the Caps’ opening night roster after first round of cuts

The Capitals are a week into training camp and the opening roster is starting to come into focus. The first round of cuts was made on Thursday and while none of the names were all that shocking, it does tell us that the team does not intend to get cute with its roster makeup with Evgeny Kuznetsov out.

Here’s a projection of the Caps’ opening night roster through the first cuts and first week of camp.

Offense

Alex Ovechkin - Nicklas Backstrom - Tom Wilson
Jakub Vrana - Lars Eller - T.J. Oshie
Carl Hagelin - Travis Boyd - Richard Panik
Brendan Leipsic - Nic Dowd - Garnett Hathaway
Chandler Stephenson

Suspended: Evgeny Kuznetsov

The top two lines are all but set. They have been practicing this way for much of camp and it seems unlikely that Todd Reirden will start that way and then randomly shuffle his top six.

Stephenson did little to help his stock on Monday with an underwhelming performance in the preseason opener against a pretty bad Chicago lineup. I see him in Washington the first week but sent down to Hershey once Kuznetsov returns. He is someone who could probably clear waivers even if it not done on the traditional waiver dump right before the league season officially starts. Boyd did a little better than Stephenson on Monday and I think he will ultimately get to stick around this season in case the team wants to boost the offense of the fourth line. For now, he can be inserted in on the third line at center.

Defense

Michal Kempny - John Carlson
Dmitry Orlov - Nick Jensen
Jonas Siegenthaler - Radko Gudas
Christian Djoos

The conversation around Kempny shifted a bit on Wednesday. The sense I was getting prior to that was that the team was all-in on Kempny being ready for the first game of the regular season. Reirden reiterated that on Wednesday, but also said he would like to get him into a preseason game if possible. To me, that may be a sign that Kempny is progressing. Even if he is not ready for the preseason, I do believe he is on pace for the start of the regular season at this point.

I felt Jensen looked pretty comfortable in the preseason opener on Monday. Granted that was against a bad roster, but he red plays well, jumped up into the offense and, critically, he was able to hold his own on the left side which is something he was really dreadful at last season.

Gudas scored a goal on Wednesday, but I thought he looked a bit slow in his own end. As of now, I still give Jensen the edge in that race and I think Gudas will be better off on the third pair anyway.

Djoos was better than Siegenthaler on Monday, but I feel Siegenthaler bought himself some time with his performance in the playoffs last year. It is going to be really hard for the Caps to justify Djoos’ salary as $1.25 million is too much for a No. 6-7 defenseman. Ultimately, the onus is on him to show the team he is someone they simply cannot afford to lose.

There is a way for the team to keep Djoos, but it depends on who backs up Braden Holtby.

Goalie

Braden Holtby
Vitek Vanecek

Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov played well enough on Wednesday that replacing Pheonix Copley seems like a real possibility. You need to see more from them than simply half a preseason game, but we will get that chance as the preseason rolls along. The problem here is Copley’s $1.1 million cap hit. If Vanecek and Samsonov can get the job done for less money -- and it looked like they could against St. Louis -- then Copley is likely headed to waivers.

Why Vanecek over Samsonov? First off, with this roster projection, the team could afford to keep Djoos with Vanecek as a backup with his $716,667 cap hit, but not with Samsonov's $925,000 cap hit. The cap is that tight. Getting Samsonov consistent playing time is also important for his development. He will get that in Hershey, but not in Washington. Vanecek is waiver exempt so the team will still be able to shuffle Samsonov and Vanecek to make sure they both get NHL playing time. That added flexibility is a plus as well. Otherwise, it would mean putting Copley on waivers in the middle of the season when he is probably more likely to get claimed.

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Capitals roster cuts: Draft picks Connor McMichael, Aliaksei Protas headline initial round

Capitals roster cuts: Draft picks Connor McMichael, Aliaksei Protas headline initial round

The Capitals made their first round of training camp cuts on Thursday, trimming 18 players from the team’s roster including preseason standouts Connor McMichael and Aliaksei Protas.

McMichael was Washington’s first-round draft pick in 2019. He tallied an incredible assist in Monday’s preseason opener, backhanding a no-look pass to a wide-open Damien Riat. His solid performance earned him another game on Wednesday where he moved up to the third line. The highlight of the night was McMichael attempting a between-the-legs shot on Stanley Cup champion goalie Jordan Binnington.

“It’s a pretty good goalie he was trying that move on,” head coach Todd Reirden said. “He has some swagger to him, he has some confidence. He’s not afraid to try plays. That’s some of the stuff that pushes guys into the first round.”

McMichael’s strong play in camp and in the preseason opened the door perhaps for him to compete to stay in Washington for the start of the season.

With the suspension to Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington finds itself down a center for the first three games. With Lars Eller moving up to the second line, that leaves an opening on the third between Carl Hagelin and Richard Panik, where McMichael played on Wednesday.

That, however, does not appear to be in the cards as McMichael is headed back to his junior team, the London Knights.

Protas, who scored a goal and two assists on Monday, was also among the players cut. A third-round draft pick in 2019, Protas was extremely impressive in the preseason for his all-around game. He showed good awareness, vision and speed. His skating form needs work, but this is a player who looks like he has an NHL future ahead of him which is not always the case for mid-round draft picks.

The fact that McMichael and Protas were among the first cuts should not be seen as an indictment of their play by the team. Junior players are usually among the first cuts so they can return to their teams during training camp. The only reason this was a question was because of Kuznetsov’s suspension, but ultimately the team has other candidates to turn to at third-line center. With a brutal October schedule, the first week of the season may not be the best time to get cute or creative with roster choices.

Here are all of the cuts the Caps made on Thursday:

Loaned to their junior teams:

Eric Flrochuk (Saskatoon, WHL)
Alex Kannok-Leipert (Vancouver, WHL)
Connor McMichael (London, OHL)
Aliaksei Protas (Prince Albert, WHL)

Released from their ATOs:

Hayden Hawkey
Beck Warm

Assigned to Hershey:

Casey Bailey
Erik Burgdoerfer
Tommy Hughes
Kale Kessy
Chris McCarthy
Matt Moulson
Logan Thompson
Matthew Weis
Steven Whitney

Kody Clark and Riley Sutter, who are both dealing with upper-body injuries, were reassigned to Hershey as well to continue rehab.

In addition, Damie Riat has been returned to his European team EHC Biel-Bienne of the NLA in Switzerland.

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