Evgeny Kuznetsov has become a topic of conversation this offseason after a lackluster showing by the Capitals in the postseason. While no one other than Alex Ovechkin played particularly well, Kuznetsov has received much of the criticism due to his inconsistent play. He has all the tools to be an NHL superstar, but we don't see him play to that potential enough leading some, including NBC NHL analyst Keith Jones, to wonder if trading Kuznetsov may be the best move for Washington.
"It's not out of the realm of possibility, I can tell you that," Jones said to NBC Sports Washington.
This, however, would be a terrible move that would hasten the end of the Caps' championship window. I wrote a column on this very subject earlier in September, but Jones has new arguments that are worth exploring.
Jones' reasoning is to look at the Chicago Blackhawks, a team that has won three Stanley Cups since 2010 and has been able to extend its window by trading away major players.
"If I think back on those Chicago Blackhawks teams that got rid of a lot of pieces that were as valuable as a guy like Kuznetsov and won a couple more Cups along the way, I would say that there's a way that you can do that," Jones said.
In the wake of winning the Cup in 2010, Chicago traded away Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd and Kris Versteeg. After winning in 2013, the team traded away Dave Bolland and Michael Frolik. In 2015, it was Brandon Saad and Patrick Sharp.
Here's where the argument starts to fall apart. Most of the assets the Blackhawks received for those trades were draft picks and cap room. That's what they really needed with the team built around Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith. These trades were necessary for Chicago to free cap space to keep the core intact and were made either when the team's Cup window was just beginning or when it was in the middle of it.
In 2010, Kane, Toews and Keith were all in their 20s. A Caps team built around a now 35-year-old Ovechkin, a 32-year-old Nicklas Backstrom and a 30-year-old John Carlson is in a completely different place than a Chicago team whose star players had not even reached their peak yet. It's not an apples to apples comparison.
In all of those trades mentioned, the Blackhawks did not lose any players close to the significance Kuznetsov has for the Caps. No defenseman the Blackhawks traded away was as important to Chicago as Keith and none of the forwards were as important as Kane or Toews. Kuznetsov, however, is one of Washington's top-two centers. Backstrom is probably still more important due to his two-way abilities, but let's not forget that in the one year Washington was able to get over the playoff hump, it was Kuznetsov who was carrying the team down the middle offensively, not Backstrom.
If the Caps trade away Kuznetsov, that is a major, gaping hole they now have in the lineup. Backstrom would have to step into the No. 1 role again despite being 32 and the team doesn't have another top-six center. If you watched the team's performance in the playoffs in 2020 with Lars Eller stepping into a second-line role and walked away thinking he's a top-six center, I don't know what to tell you. Eller is a tremendous third-line player, an absolute asset to the team, but the Caps don't get better if you take Kuznetsov off the roster and replace him with Eller.
Also, when it comes to getting value in trades, timing is everything. Those trades were made right after the Blackhawks won the Cup and teams everywhere are willing to pay for players who have been there, done that.
"As long as you're getting back an equal or better return -- sometimes you'll get a better return based on certain teams' financial position -- you can do wonders for yourself," Jones said.
Sure, but the Caps won't be getting an equal or better return. If you want to follow Chicago's example, the time to trade Kuznetsov was in 2018 after the team won the Cup, not two years later after two first-round exits and with every general manager knowing Kuznetsov is inconsistent and the Caps are tight against the salary cap. You're not getting equal value for that.
And while we are talking about value trades, let's not just focus on the good ones Chicago made. Let's look at some of the other players the team has traded away since winning its last Cup, namely Teuvo Teravainen, Nicklas Hjalmarsson and Artemi Panairn.
You think Chicago would want a re-do on any of those trades?
"The window is closing in DC and some tinkering like that could go a long way in sparking a few veteran stars and getting them over the hump again," Jones said.
Yes, if Ovechkin and Backstrom were in their 20s and the team was still in the middle of its Cup window rather than at the tail end and clearing cap space was more important to the team than a player like Kuznetsov but none of those things are true. I don't see how the Caps get better trading away one of their top-two centers are which veteran this is sending a message to.
A veteran Caps' team will not somehow extend its championship window by trading away a 28-year-old Kuznetsov whose playoff success was the catalyst to the team's lone Stanley Cup championship and who the Caps have no replacement for.