It's been a tough 16 months for Evgeny Kuznetsov. In May 2019, a video showed Kuznetsov in a hotel room next to an unidentified white powder and he was eventually suspended from international competition for four years by the IIHF after testing positive for cocaine. The NHL also announced he would be suspended for three games to start the 2019-20 regular season. For the season, his 52 points was his lowest point total since 2014-15 and he was on pace for his lowest point total since 2017 had the NHL been able to finish the regular season. In the playoffs, Washington was bounced in the first round by the New York Islanders. Kuznetsov managed five points in eight games, but was a minus-4 and his faceoff percentage was a putrid 36.6-percent.
Now with the Caps facing the constraints of a flat salary cap, general manager Brian MacLellan must face the elephant in the room and determine if Washington would perhaps be better off trading away the inconsistent center with his $7.8 million cap hit.
The answer is no. One-thousand times, no.
Listen, I get it. Kuznetsov has the talent to be an elite superstar in the NHL and it looked like he finally unlocked that potential in 2018 when he scored 32 points in 24 playoff games during Washington's Stanley Cup run. It is so frustrating to see him fail to live up to those expectations every year since and then say things like this:
Kuznetsov is 28 years old and you would expect he would have grown out of some of his antics by now and found more consistency to his game.
But don't let that frustration convince you that he needs to be traded because he's not going to be. With every team in the NHL dealing with a flat cap, finding a team that could fit his $7.8 million on their roster would not be an easy task. Plus, according to CapFriendly, he has a modified no-trade clause and can provide a 15-team no-trade list which would further complicate things. If Kuznetsov was adamant about remaining in Washington, a savvy agent would present a no-trade list to the 15 teams he think would most likely trade for him thus blocking any hopes of a trade before they can begin.
You can also tell Kuznetos'v not going anywhere based on what MacLellan said about the team's coaching search.
"I think we had an underperformance from a couple guys in the last two playoff series and team structure," MacLellan said in August, "I think consistent compete level from some guys would help our goal moving forward and I think those buttons do need to be pushed. We need to hold guys accountable when they don’t perform up to standards."
MacLellan may not have singled Kuznetsov out by name, but it seems pretty obvious this was one of the players he was talking about. After all, Todd Reirden benched Kuznetsov against the Philadelphia Flyers in the round-robin after two defensive breakdowns by the center.
If you are looking for a coach to work with a player like Kuznetsov, it seems unlikely that the team would be on the verge of trading that player away.
But this is not just a case of the Caps being stuck with a player. The fact is, they should not be trying to trade away Kuznetsov.
I am not quite sure how anyone could have watched the playoffs and come away thinking the Caps would be better off getting rid of one of their top centers. Center depth was one of the major deciding factors of the series. When Nicklas Backstrom went down with an injury, the team struggled tremendously in his absence. Lars Eller showed that while he remains a high-end third-line center, he is also still a low-end second-line center playing in Backstrom's place. The team also take a huge step back on the third line with Travis Boyd and Brian Pinho failing to gain Reirden's trust. They need more centers, not fewer and they are not going to get better trading away a 28-year-old Kuznetsov thus making the 32-year-old Backstrom the team's only choice at top-line center.
Some of you are at home thinking that the presence of prospect Connor McMichael within the system makes Kuznetsov expendable and perhaps he would in a rebuild, but not with the team gunning for a Stanley Cup. To jettison away a player who, again, scored 32 points in 24 playoff games in favor of a 19-year-old rookie with zero professional experience because he played well against kids his own age is a gamble the team cannot afford to make in what could be this team's last year of championship contention.
If you think free agency could be the solution to adding a top-six center, go ahead and look at the available UFA centers. Be my guest. Of the pending UFA centers, the 30-year-old Tyler Ennis had the best season with 37 points. Think the Caps are better off with him instead? Or perhaps the 34-year-old Carl Soderberg? What about 26-year-old Zembus Girgenssons who managed 19 points last season?
Yeah, the free-agent market isn't a realistic option.
McMichael's salary cap is low enough the team will easily be able to recall him if his play warrants it. Until then, no one should head into the season thinking he is a better alternative to Kuznetsov.
Kuznetsov's $7.8 million cap hit is significant, but he's not overpaid. Kuznetsov ranks sixth in his draft class in points scored with 389. Compare his cap hit to that of the other players who rank high in the class in points:
Tyler Seguin: 635 points, $9.85 million cap hit
Taylor Hall: 563 points, $6 million cap hit
Jeff Skinner: 465 points, $9 million cap hit
Ryan Johansen: 442 points, $8 million cap hit
Vladimir Tarasenko: 428 points, $7.5 million cap hit
Evgeny Kuznetsov: 389 points, $7.8 million cap hit
Mark Stone: 385 points, $9.5 million cap hit
Stone and Kuznetsov are very close in points, but Stone is a winger while Kuznetsov is a center and Stone's career-high in playoff points is 17 compared to Kuznetsov's 32, yet Stone has a significantly higher cap hit and is signed out to 2027, two years after Kuznetsov's current contract expires. Then there's Skinner. Yikes.
The other hangup on a Kuznetsov trade is what would the team be able to get in return? Could you get one, maybe two significant additions to the roster? I would think so,yes, but will the team get anyone who can have the kind of impact Kuznetsov has shown he can have on this Caps' team?
With every passing year, Kuznetsov's magical postseason run looks more like an anomaly. I understand that and don't think the Caps can go forward expecting him to be that player, but he is still a 70-point producer and is in his prime. I just don't see how the Caps are able to get the kind of value they stand to lose by trading away Kuznetsov which means you can't make that trade.
Is it fair to be frustrated by Kuznetsov's lack of consistency? Absolutely, but it would be foolish to let that force the team into making a bad trade that would almost certainly make the team worse, not better.