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What happened to Caps center Evgeny Kuznetsov in Stanley Cup playoffs and what's ahead next season?

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What happened to Caps center Evgeny Kuznetsov in Stanley Cup playoffs and what's ahead next season?

The Stanley Cup playoffs were a showcase for Evgeny Kuznetsov in 2018. They were a exercise in frustration in 2019 for the Capitals center.

Kuznetsov had a goal and five assists in the first-round playoff loss to the Carolina Hurricanes. He scored in Game 7. But the team was also out-shot decisively when he was on the ice during the regular season, and that only got worse in the Carolina series. 

A player who arguably could have won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in 2018 after the Capitals won the Stanley Cup instead faced some heat that he hadn’t done enough as their title defense came to an early end last week. Is that fair? Probably not. But that’s also life when a player sets the bar as high as Kuznetsov did last spring. 

“If I'm gonna say I'm perfect, I don't wanna grow. That's not true,” Kuznetsov said. “You want to get better every day like a hockey player, like a person. It doesn't matter who you are, you want to get better, right? It's pretty hard to get better when everything's good, when everyone happy…But when you lost a Game 7 at home in double OT, that's the pain you don't want to feel again."

So what went wrong? Certainly, Kuznetsov was challenged. He spent 41.2 percent of his time at even strength going against Carolina center Sebastian Aho’s top line during the seven-game series. Another 26 percent of his ice time was against Jordan Staal and the Hurricanes’ second line. 

In reality, Kuznetsov played them to almost a draw despite being on the ice for 60 shots against to 43 for in 101 minutes, 55 seconds of even-strength ice time. Kuznetsov was on the ice in Game 7 when Teuvo Taravainen scored to cut Washington’s lead to 3-2 with 3:23 left in the second period. 

But just a few minutes earlier he’d made the defensive play that led to his own wrister for a goal that put the Capitals ahead 3-1. He also had the primary assist in Game 2 with a beautiful pass to Brooks Orpik for the game-winner in overtime. The only other times he was on for goals against came in Game 2 when Aho tied it 2-2 and late in Game 6 when the net was empty.

A goal and five assists in seven games isn’t bad. But Kuznetsov had 32 points in 24 playoff games the year before to lead all scorers. He had the overtime series clincher against Pittsburgh in the second round. He became the "Bird Man" with his celebrations. It was hard to match all of that.  

“We were spoiled last year with how [Kuznetsov] played in the playoffs,” coach Todd Reirden said. “That’s the standard that he showed us and the standard that he’s going to be held to now. That’s part of growing as a player – understanding what’s expected of you. He understood that as a player. He didn’t feel that he met that. And he didn’t.”

Reirden spoke in the immediate aftermath of the Game 7 loss. Kuznetsov had the primary assist on Orpik’s overtime goal, a T.J. Oshie goal also in Game 2 and Alex Ovechkin power-play goals in Game 1 and Game 5. He did not have a point in the three losses in Raleigh. He was on the ice for three even-strength goals and two against if you take out the empty-netter. 

In some ways, that inconsistency mirrored Kuznetsov’s season. It’s hard to complain when one of your top two centers has 72 points in 76 games (21 goals, 51 assists). Kuznetsov tied his career best in shots (193). His shooting percentage dipped some (10.9 percent), but was just off his career average (11.3 percent). But the Capitals believe he can be better than 46th in the NHL in scoring. 

At age 27 next season – his birthday is May 19th- Kuznetsov will need to be better if Washington plans to stay on top of the Metropolitan Division and again be a Stanley Cup contender.   

“I think the frustration from my point - or the organization’s point - is there’s a top 10 player in the League in there and when he’s on it’s a lot of fun to watch and our team is a lot better,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. “And when the inconsistency is there, I think everybody gets a little frustrated because you want Top 10 Kuzy.”

Even if faceoffs aren’t everything, you’d also rather not have a center struggle the way Kuznetsov did in the circle. There were 49 players who took 1,000 or more faceoffs this season. Kuznetsov won 38.6 percent, which was by far the worst of those. Columbus’ Pierre-Luc Dubois, who ranked 48th, was still at 43.4 percent. Kuznetsov lost 231 more faceoffs (627) than he won (396). He wasn’t close.   

Kuznetsov insisted the six games he missed after a concussion Nov. 14 in a game at Winnipeg didn’t affect him. His “Russian machine never breaks” comment might have been the best of breakdown day. But at the time of the concussion he had six goals and 15 assists through the first 17 games of the season. The expectations, as always, were high that would continue all year, and in his final 58 games, Kuznetsov had 15 goals and 36 assists.

Again, not bad. But the Capitals and Kuznetsov want more in 2019-20. With goalie Braden Holtby and center Nicklas Backstrom heading into the final year of their contracts and most of Washington’s top players now 30 or older, it’s time for Kuznetsov to make that step once and for all. 

"When you win a lot of games, you're not growing. You think, 'Ah, I will be all right,' and that's probably the problem when you're playing on a good team,” Kuznetsov said. “When you win a lot of games, you feel teammates, they always got your back and you're kind of loose a little bit. That's probably the biggest part for me I have to learn: To still look for the challenges, still look for the motivation.”


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Why the Caps had to trade Matt Niskanen

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Why the Caps had to trade Matt Niskanen

In an ideal world, you keep players like Matt Niskanen.

A veteran defenseman with years of experience, a player who was given hard minutes during Stanley Cup playoff runs in 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018 and excelled, a soft-spoken, but blunt man unafraid to say when his team played like hot garbage. These are not guys you look to trade. 

Unless, of course, they have a $5.75 million salary-cap hit for the next two years and your team desperately needs to clear space for other priorities. The Capitals made that long-expected move on Friday when they traded Niskanen to the Philadelphia Flyers for defenseman Radko Gudas. 

In a vacuum, this is a loss. Niskanen by all accounts has been a better defenseman than Gudas. But they are also on different career trajectories. Niskanen struggled, especially early last season. He is 32. There’s at least a chance we’ve seen the best of him, though he’d argue by the end of last season he was closer to his normal self.

“Not totally shocked, but it caught me a little off guard,” Niskanen told reporters on a conference call Friday. “I knew once the NHL season was over, from now until the draft is typically when things happen.  Not really shocked, a little surprised. I knew this is the time of year when these things can happen and I knew what kind of situation Washington was in, so I knew there was a possibility.

Gudas, 29, is going in the opposite direction – though his ceiling is surely lower than Niskanen’s is at his best. He’s cut down his penalty minutes each of the past three years. He’s of limited offensive value, instead a classic stay-at-home defenseman who’s become effective at limiting the high-danger chances when he’s on the ice. 

And that role won’t have to be a big one. The Capitals have an in-house replacement for Niskanen on the right side of the second pair with Nick Jensen, who is really the on-ice key to this trade. 

Jensen, acquired at the trade deadline from Detroit, was immediately signed to a four-year contract extension sight unseen. The writing was on the wall for Niskanen then. Caps GM Brian MacLellan basically said it out loud at breakdown down when he acknowledged retaining scoring depth is a priority and that he likely would have to move salary. These dots weren’t difficult to connect. 

Gudas is the plug-in defenseman on the third pair who allows Washington’s coaching staff to pick and choose which young player – Jonas Siegenthaler, Christian Djoos or whoever – they want to use on a given night. Both players are natural left-side defensemen.

If Jensen can find the comfort level he’d reached with the Red Wings, then MacLellan will have a more balanced roster. Immediately he can focus his leftover resources on the third and fourth lines. Maybe that means re-signing Carl Hagelin. Early indications are that’s a priority. 

But with about $13.49 million in cap space, according to the uber-helpful web site Cap there is a little breathing room now to take care of restricted free agents (RFAs) Jakub Vrana – expect him around the $4 million mark on a bridge deal – and maybe Andre Burakovsky (a $3.25 million qualifying offer or less than that if they buy out his final two years of restricted free agency). 

But now let’s look at the long-term implications of the Niskanen trade. Gudas is a free agent after next season. That Niskanen money is gone just in time for contract extensions with center Nicklas Backstrom and goalie Braden Holtby.  

The Capitals will lose the bonus overage ($1.150 million) they have to pay defenseman Brooks Orpik this year - whether he plays with the team or not (a return seems unlikely now). Gudas’ cap hit is $2.345 million. The salary cap should also rise again from $83 million. Without moving more salary, keeping both Holtby and Backstrom seems like a long shot. 

Speaking with Holtby on Saturday at the Capital Pride Parade, he insisted to NBC Sports Washington that he hadn’t heard anything from his agent about contract talks beginning. That’s something you’d expect to happen this summer - or not at all if Holtby rightly pursues a top-level goalie contract. 

Montreal goalie Carey Price has a $10.5 million cap hit, New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist is at $8.5 million and Columbus goalie Sergei Bobrovsky could hit double figures as he enters the free agent market this summer. 

Backstrom, too, a bargain for nine years now, will want a raise. He now has the 20thhighest cap hit for a center ($6.7 million). You’d have to think he’d seek well over $8 million. Teammate Evgeny Kuznetsov has had a $7.8 million cap hit since 2017.

Niskanen knew all of this, of course. He understands the business side of the sport. A player with his own moral code, who was always, always at his locker when he made a mistake in a game or when someone had to account for a poor team performance, leaves Washington after five years with a Stanley Cup and few regrets. It’s what he came here to do.  


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The Niskanen trade helps the Caps’ salary cap situation, but tough decisions are still ahead

The Niskanen trade helps the Caps’ salary cap situation, but tough decisions are still ahead

The 2019 offseason for the Capitals was always going to revolve around the salary cap. The first domino fell on Friday with the trade of defenseman Matt Niskanen and his $5.75 million cap hit to the Philadelphia Flyers.

The Caps received defenseman Radko Gudas in return with the Flyers retaining 30-percent of his $3.35 million cap hit. In total, Washington freed up $3.405 million worth of cap space for next season.

But that was just step one. There is still a lot of work left for general manager Brian MacLellan to do over the summer to fill out a full roster. Just how much easier did his life get on Friday?

With the move, the Caps now have eight forwards, six defensemen and two goalies under contract for next season for about $69.5 million. Ideally, a team wants 22 players with 13 forwards, seven defensemen and two goalies. The salary cap has not yet been officially set, but it is projected to be $83 million. That means the team still needs five forwards and one defenseman and has about $13.5 million worth of cap space to work with.

Jakub Vrana and Christian Djoos are both restricted free agents and both will almost certainly be back. That is one forward and one defenseman off the wish list. Vrana will probably come in at about $4 million per year and Djoos at $1 million, giving the team about $8.5 million left for four forwards.

The good news is that the team is pretty much set in the top-six which of course means MacLellan will not need to find a big money player. The Niskanen trade allows the team room for a significant depth forward somewhere in the $4 million range for the third line with enough left over to fill out the remaining depth spots. The bad news is that still leaves the team with some tough choices to make.

Carl Hagelin and Brett Connolly are both unrestricted free agents and the team may have enough money for one, but not both. There is also still the question of what to do with Andre Burakovsky. Do you qualify him for $3.25 million? That may not be as tough a pill to swallow at this point, but it is still a significant amount of money to commit to a player with 12 goals in each of the past two seasons. And then there are the team’s other RFAs Chandler Stephenson and Dmitrij Jaskin. MacLellan will have to make a decision on all of those players while still putting together a team with enough depth to compete for the Stanley Cup before the window closes on the Ovechkin era completely.

The Caps lost a good player and locker room presence in Niskanen and now have more cap flexibility as a result, but it does not solve all of the team’s salary cap problems. The team will not be able to add as much offensive depth as perhaps it would have liked and MacLellan will still have to get creative to put together a bottom six formidable enough for a deep Cup run.