*With a flat salary cap, some expiring contracts and the Seattle expansion draft, this is going to be a busy offseason for the Capitals. To get you ready, Capitals writers Andrew Gillis and JJ Regan are breaking down the biggest offseason questions with their thoughts.
Today's question: What is the future of Evgeny Kuznetsov?
Andrew: I feel like I have the exact opposite opinion of most Caps fans, and it's that I think Evgeny Kuznetsov isn’t going anywhere.
The Capitals have made it clear that they’re set on competing for a Stanley Cup in 2022, and having a player with even the potential of Kuznetsov is worth riding out for another year. When he’s on his game, he’s an elite center and gives the Capitals an extremely talented one-two punch down the middle.
If the Capitals ship out Kuznetsov, then the return is very unlikely to net a player that can fill in a top-six role at center that is on par with what the Capitals would need. Trading Kuznetsov, at likely his lowest value of his massive contract, wouldn’t net the Capitals what they’d need to win a Cup.
This conversation is fluid and can massively change over the course of the next year, both good or bad, but right now he’s the best option for a team that wants to win.
JJ: When asked about the possibility of trading Kuznetsov at the team's end-of-season media availability, Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said, "I think we're always open to trading people if it makes sense for what's going on. If it's going to make our team better, I think we're open to it. I don't think anybody's off the table. We're not going to trade Ovi or Backy and those type of people, but I think you have to be open on anything. We would talk to anybody about any player."
That's not exactly a "no," is it?
Before you cross him off your roster, however, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, Kuznetsov is arguably the team's top center and trading that away makes the roster weaker. On a championship-caliber roster, Lars Eller is a third-line center, not a second. The plan can't be just to get rid of Kuznetsov and bump Backstrom to the top line and Eller to the second.
Maybe the team could do that initially with Connor McMichael playing on the third line in the hopes that McMichael would be able to develop into a top-six player by the end of the season, but that is a lot to put on the shoulders of a player with one game of NHL experience and 33 games in the AHL. That's probably an unreasonable expectation and I would predict McMichael starts the season in Hershey.
The second thing to consider is what could the team get back for Kuznetsov? His trade value is probably as low as it has ever been at this point, plus he has a modified no-trade clause allowing him to present the Caps with a 15-team no-trade list. Exposing him to Seattle in the expansion draft could be an option and his talent level would be pretty hard for the Kraken to pass up. You would be losing him for nothing at that point so it would be a matter of just how much the team wants to move him (if they do at all) and what they deem the market to be for him. If there is no trade market, then exposing him to Seattle would at least clear up $7.8 million of cap space for a team in desperate need of shedding salary.
After three straight first-round playoff exits, I think a major move is needed if the team hopes to continue to compete for the Stanley Cup. With that in mind, I see why moving an inconsistent player like Kuznetsov would make sense. But you only make that kind of a move if you are sure you can get a top-six center back (whether as part of the deal, through a trade, free agency, etc.) because the goal for this season remains to compete for the Stanley Cup. If not, then the Caps should keep him for one more run.