When the Capitals fell to the Boston Bruins in five games to end the 2021 season, major changes seemed inevitable. The name many people began to focus on was Evgeny Kuznetsov. But while you may think trading away a top-line center should be an easy and profitable decision, it is actually far more complicated than many realize and that is why Kuznetsov looks poised for another year in Washington in 2021-22.
Kuznetsov had another inconsistent season, scoring just nine goals and registering 20 assists in 41 games and going without a point in three postseason games. But it's important to remember Kuznetsov twice had COVID-19 and just how much that impacted his play cannot be overstated. However, Kuznetsov's issues in 2021 were not limited to on the ice as he violated the league's health and safety protocols and was also benched for a game after being late for a team function.
After the season, general manager Brian MacLellan said of Kuznetsov's performance, "I think it's been inconsistent for a few years here, and it's hurt our team."
"We need [Kuznetsov] to play at his highest ability, and if he can't play at his highest ability, we're not going to be a good team and we'd have to make some other decisions," MacLellan added.
"[Kuznetsov]’s a good player," MacLellan said. "We like the player. I don’t know. We’ve never said we’re trading Kuznetsov. I said we were open to discussions on most of our players on the trade market and if it comes up, it comes up and if it doesn’t make sense, same as always."
Now in early August, the possibility of a Kuznetsov trade appears more and more remote and that's not a huge surprise. Really, this was always going to be a hard one to pull off.
While it seems a player of Kuznetsov's caliber would net the Caps a big return, but it's actually more complicated than that.
First off, every team in the NHL knows about Kuznetsov's inconsistencies and about the off-ice incidents. They also know about the Caps' salary cap constraints. It is not a general manager's job to do anyone any favors and the fact that Washington needed to shed cap space lowers Kuznetsov's trade value. No one is going to offer a motivated seller full value in a trade.
The flat salary cap has also squeezed teams across the NHL and made moving contracts like Kuznetsov's incredibly difficult.
Kuznetsov still has four years remaining on his contract with a $7.8 million cap hit. That ranks among the top 50 cap hits in the league.
Remember Richard Panik? It cost the Caps a first-round pick, a second-round pick and Jakub Vrana to shed Panik's contract and acquire Anthony Mantha and Panik's cap hit is just $2.75 million for the next two years.
Yeah, but Kuznetsov is a top-line center! Surely, that has value, you may be thinking. Not this year.
Look at what it cost teams to shed salary this offseason. Tampa Bay had to trade a second-round draft pick and take on the contract of Brent Seabrook -- a player who will remain on LTIR for the remainder of his contract -- from the Chicago Blackhawks in order to trade away Tyler Johnson who was a key piece in their two Stanley Cup wins. Vegas traded away Marc-Andre Fleury, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner, for a prospect who is unlikely to ever make it to the NHL. That's two prominent players traded away for literally nothing but cap relief.
In today's NHL, acquiring cap space is a major asset. Trading a player like Kuznetsov is not going to net a high return because the Caps would already be getting $7.8 million of cap relief as part of the deal. To opposing general managers, that is the return for Washington.
Could the Caps retain salary to make a trade more likely? Sure, up to $3.9 million but that's just dead money against the salary cap for the next four years. Washington has been a cap team in its search for a second Stanley Cup so it is shortsighted to view four years of dead cap space as somehow a positive because it would provide momentary cap relief.
Trading away Kuznetsov also means replacing him.
Kuznetsov is a top-line center. Those don't grow on trees. Nicklas Backstrom continues to play at a high level and can play on the top line, but that still leaves a hole in the top six that the Caps can't fill internally.
Lars Eller is a great player, but he has established himself as a great third-line center and that's where he should stay. Eller is not a top-six center on a championship roster and the Caps are not a Stanley Cup contender if their top two centers go from Kuznetsov and Backstrom to Backstrom and Eller. Prospect Connor McMichael certainly projects to be a top-six center eventually, but, for now, he has just one game of NHL experience and one season of AHL experience. He is not ready to step into a top-six role on a team with Cup aspirations.
The bottom line is that the Caps are in a position where they can only trade away Kuznetsov if they get a top-six center as part of the deal or at least have another trade in place or a free agent ready to sign to fill that role.
Of course, all of this does not completely rule out a Kuznetsov trade. History shows that no player is impossible to trade, but trading away an inconsistent player with a high cap hit for the next four years while the league has a flat salary cap and somehow getting a top-six center as part of the deal is a tall order. Don't be surprised if it doesn't happen.