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Key Caps questions: Is Evgeny Kuznetsov a superstar?

Key Caps questions: Is Evgeny Kuznetsov a superstar?

The dog days of summer are officially here, but it's never too hot to talk some hockey.

Capitals Insider Tarik El-Bashir and Capitals correspondent JJ Regan are here to help you through the offseason doldrums. They will discuss key questions facing the Caps for the upcoming season as Washington prepares to defend its title for the first time in franchise history.

Today's question: Has Evgeny Kuznetsov made the jump from really good player to superstar?

Tarik: Yes, without a doubt, Evgeny Kuznetsov has made the leap from a very good player to a superstar.

And you know when it happened?

It happened over the course of 56 unforgettable days this past spring.

Kuzy has always possessed the talent to be one of the game’s most impactful players. His 83 regular season points, in fact, marked a career high and put him just inside the NHL’s top-20 in production.

He indeed had a very good regular season. But to me, superstars are the players who are in the national sports conversation. The guys who come to mind immediately when you think about a particular team. Guys who can single-handedly break open a game or a playoffs series. Guys who’ve received a major NHL award or have been recognized with a trip to the All-Star Game. For the Caps, those guys have been Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby for the last several years.

Kuznetsov, 26, became a member of that group in the playoffs.

Ovechkin took home the Conn Smythe Trophy, but it easily could have gone to Kuznetsov. I know because I wrestled with the decision to put Ovi over Kuzy for days prior to casting my vote.

Here’s why I had such a tough time:

  • Kuznetsov led the Stanley Cup-winning team (and the entire postseason) with 32 points…five more than Ovechkin.
  • Kuznetsov scored arguably the most important goal of the run…Game 6…in OT…vs. the archrival and two-time defending champion Penguins. Without that clutch tally, we’re having a different discussion today.
  • In addition to being the most productive Capital during the playoffs, I also felt he was the most consistent from game to game. In fact, Kuznetsov recorded at least a point in all but one of the Caps’ final 13 postseason contests. And that one game? Game 2 vs. Las Vegas, and he left after just a few shifts due to a shoulder injury.

Kuznetsov is no longer the dude who centers Ovi’s line. Kuznetsov is now his own dude. He’s progressed from a star-in-the-making to just a star.

And here’s the best part: when fans outside of Washington get a load of his, um, weirdly unique and outrageously funny personality, his popularity is going to explode.

JJ: Sorry Tarik, but you are wrong. Dead wrong.

Oops, I should clarify. You're not wrong about Kuznetsov being a superstar, you're wrong because it didn't happen last spring. He already was one.

I don't know what people have been watching over the past few years, but in my book, Kuznetsov graduated from very good to superstar a long time ago, it just took the 2018 playoff run for most people to notice.

Perhaps we have a different definition of "superstar." To me, national recognition has no bearing on whether a player is a superstar talent. Heck, Backstrom has been a superstar for years with hardly any recognition at all. Maybe expectations were high for Kuznetsov given how long Washington had to wait to get him out of Russia and how good he was in the KHL and because of that, people withheld praise. But the fact is he has shown throughout his career, and not just last spring, that he is a superstar.

At the age of 22, Kuznetsov had a breakout performance in the 2015 playoffs with five goals and seven points in 14 games. We all remember his series-clinching goal against the Penguins, but that was not his first. He also scored another clutch, series-clinching goal in Game 7 against the New York Islanders in 2015. During this year's playoff run, I asked him a question about the Pittsburgh overtime goal and I called it the biggest of his career. He corrected me and told me he still considered the game-winner against Jaroslav Halak and the Islanders to be his biggest.

In only his second full season in the league, Kuznetsov rattled off 77 points to lead the Caps. He finished tied for ninth in the entire NHL that year ahead of other superstars like Vladimir Tarasenko, Anze Kopitar, Tyler Seguin and two guys named Ovechkin and Backstrom.

Yes, there was the year in which he managed only two points in 12 playoff games, but his repeated success to this point in his career shows that postseason was very much the exception and not the norm.

So to answer the question, yes, Kuznetsov is absolutely a superstar. It just took awhile for people to notice.

Other key questions

How will the Caps look different under Todd Reirden?
Will the Caps suffer a Stanley Cup hangover?
Can Alex Ovechkin still challenge for another Rocket Richard Trophy?

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How a flat cap could affect the Capitals' approach to the Seattle expansion draft

How a flat cap could affect the Capitals' approach to the Seattle expansion draft

The NHL salary cap is going to remain at $81.5 million for next two years at least. That is going to make life difficult for Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan. With the team already tight against the cap ceiling, he won't even get the annual relief of the cap rising. One way in which the team could find a modicum of relief, however, is through the 2021 expansion draft. Every team in the NHL will lose a player to Seattle which means taking a contract off the books. Given the team's cap situation, there is one player specifically to keep in mind when it comes to the expansion draft: T.J. Oshie.

For the expansion, each team will be able to protect eight skaters and a goalie or seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie. It seems safe to assume Washington will choose the latter. Here are the forwards that will still be under contract after the 2020-21 season: Nicklas Backstrom, Nic Dowd, Lars Eller, Carl Hagelin, Garnet Hathaway, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Oshie, Richard Panik and Tom Wilson. The contracts for both Alex Ovechkin and Jakub Vrana expire at the end of the 2020-21 season, but both will almost certainly be re-signed so we can add them to the list.

Of the forwards the team would want to protect, the most obvious choices are Backstrom, Eller, Kuznetsov, Ovechkin, Vrana and Wilson. Most would assume that the seventh spot should go to Oshie, but should it?

As I wrote yesterday, one of the issues for Washington is that the team has several long-term deals on the books. For a team with little room under the cap, MacLellan had to offer longer-term deals instead of big money ones to remain competitive in the gree agent market. The risk is that it ties you to a player for longer, but even if a player is not living up to his contract, the percentage of his cap hit would decrease every year with a steadily rising salary cap. Well, now the cap is no longer rising and that means players on long deals, like Oshie, are not getting better as the players age.

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Here are a few things to keep in mind when it comes to Oshie. First, he will be 34 at the time of the expansion draft and will only be halfway through an eight-year contract that carries a cap hit of $5.75 million. Obviously, the chances that Oshie would be living up to that cap hit when he was 37 or 38 were low when Oshie first signed the deal, but that's OK because with a steadily rising cap, the percentage would probably be low enough at that point that it would not be a significant issue. But now the salary cap is flat which means MacLellan is going to have to take a hard look at all of the team's long-term deals and project out what the team can expect from those players towards the end of their contracts.

Oshie is having a great season with 26 goals and 23 assists. He was on pace for 58 points which would have been his best in Washington. He is a leader on the team and a real boost to the locker room. No one could question his value to Washington now, but the question is what will his value be in the second half of his contract?

RELATED: WHY A FLAT SALARY CAP IS BAD NEWS FOR THE CAPS

Granted, Seattle knows all of this, but there are three reasons why Oshie would still be an attractive acquisition. First, Oshie's cap hit is essentially a non-factor for a team starting from scratch. The Caps have very little room to work with under the cap while Seattle has all of the room to work with. A cap hit of $5.75 million would hardly be a deterrent. Second, Oshie is actually from Washington state. While most fans remember Oshie taking the Cup to his hometown of Warroad, Minn., Oshie was born in Washington and lived there until moving to Minnesota in 2002. Third, when building a team, you need players like Oshie who are personable and charismatic. He is the life of the locker room and a natural leader. He would be Washington's native son, returning to lead the team in its inaugural season.

To me, it is not a stretch to think that if Oshie is indeed selected, he would be in the running to be Seattle's first captain. His departure would also provide some cap relief to a Washington team in need of the extra room. Losing Oshie would mean losing that spark in the locker room, however, and MacLellan will have to decide whether that is a fair trade-off.

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Why a flat NHL salary cap is bad news for the Capitals

Why a flat NHL salary cap is bad news for the Capitals

When it comes to free agency and projecting which pending free agents a team may try to re-sign, there is a fair amount of guesswork involved. For most of the year, we don't actually know perhaps the most crucial piece of information: the salary cap. The salary cap is not set until after a season is over so while we have projections of what the cap may be, we don't actually know. The one assumption that pretty much everyone makes when projecting the cap is that it will go up. Business is good for professional sports, the value of teams continues to rise as does hockey-related revenue...and then the coronavirus pandemic happened.

The revenue the league stands to lose due to the pause to the season, the cancellation of the remainder of the regular season and a postseason without any fan attendance brought the NHL and NHL Players' Association together to negotiate how to navigate the difficult financial times ahead. As a result, an agreement was reached Monday on a memorandum of understanding for the collective bargaining agreement. As part of the negotiations, both sides reportedly agreed to a flat salary cap for the next two seasons meaning the current ceiling of $81.5 million will remain the ceiling.

That's bad news for the Capitals.

But why? If the Caps can afford to fit their team under the $81.5 million salary cap now, why is it such an issue that the cap will remain at $81.5 million next season?

As I mentioned above, everyone operates under the assumption that the salary cap will continue to rise, including general managers. That's not optimism or poor planning. Really it takes something catastrophic to halt that rise, like a lockout/strike or...you know, like a global pandemic. The point is, every team when projecting out its rosters for next year and beyond, did so with the assumption that the salary cap would rise. Now that it's not, that affects the projections for every team.

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For the Caps, yes, they were able to fit their roster under the $81.5 million cap for this season, but just barely. For much of the season, the team carried only six defensemen, the bare minimum, on the roster. That means if a player got sick or injured the day of the game, the team would have essentially had to play a full game with only five defensemen. It took a lot of cap gymnastics for general manager Brian MacLellan to fit his roster under the cap and it was something that was constantly tweaked all year. Will he be able to do it again next year? Not with the current roster.

The biggest issue for Washington is a number of long-term deals that will now come back to bite them. The Caps have for several years now been a "cap team," meaning they have spent right up to the salary cap ceiling. This is typical for teams looking to compete for the Stanley Cup. If you feel you are a legitimate contender, you try to make every dollar count towards building a championship roster. Without much room under the cap to work with, however, MacLellan had to offer free agents something else in order to entice players to sign. As a result, the team has given out several deals to players of four years or more. The benefit to this is, not only can you continue bidding on free agents without much money to spend, but even if a player does not live up to his cap hit, that cap hit gets lower every year in terms of percentage with a rising salary cap.

In 2017, T.J. Oshie was a free agent. The Caps did not have the money under the cap to re-sign him so instead offered him an eight-year deal. There is no question Oshie left money on the table in terms of a yearly salary, but he got more years. Will he be worth a $5.75 million cap hit when he's 38 and on the last year of his contract? Probably not by today's standards when his cap hit alone takes a little over 7-percent of the team's cap space. With a rising cap, however, that percentage would have gone down each year. Now it won't, at least not as much as MacLellan had anticipated.

For a team that has pushed right up against the cap ceiling the last few years, one of the few sources of relief it could find was the yearly increase to the cap. Now it won't have that for the next two years.

RELATED: NHL, NHLPA ADD 4 YEARS TO CURRENT CBA  

Washington has 11 players with at least three years on their current contracts after the 2019-20 season. Those are players whose cap hits by percentage will remain exactly the same next season. With a salary cap of $81.5 million, the Caps have 11 forwards, four defensemen and one goalie under contract with a little less than $10.4 million of cap space remaining.  That's $10.4 million to use on at least two forwards, three defensemen and a goalie. That's not a lot.

There are also restricted free agents like Jonas Siegenthaler and Travis Boyd with cap hits of $714,166 and $800,000, respectively. Both players will be due raises. It's hard to imagine the team walking away from Siegenthaler, but even if they wanted to with Boyd, they would still have to replace him with another player who costs money. Plus, Ilya Kovalchuk, Radko Gudas, Brenden Dillon and, most importantly, Braden Holtby will be unrestricted free agents.

Free agency was going to be difficult for Washington to manage yet again in 2020 regardless of how much the cap was going to rise. Now with a flat cap, the team's practice of handing out long-term contracts is really going to come back to bite them and force some difficult decisions. The team has very little money to pay players more than what they're making now. Does this ensure the end of Holtby's time in Washington? Does the team wait on a long-term extension for Ovechkin to get a better idea of where the salary cap may be in a few years? Can the team afford to keep any of its UFAs? Does the team leave Oshie exposed to Seattle in the expansion draft?

At this point, these are all questions MacLellan now has to consider.

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