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Why Brian MacLellan felt he had no leverage with Evgeny Kuznetsov

Why Brian MacLellan felt he had no leverage with Evgeny Kuznetsov

When it comes to NHL free agency, restricted free agents don’t hold a lot of rights. So why did the Caps feel they had no leverage in their negotiations with Evgeny Kuznetsov?

Kuznetsov signed a massive eight-year, $62.4 million deal on Sunday in a deal that seemed to take general manager Brian MacLellan by surprise.

“I think we went a little above where we thought we were going to be,” MacLellan told reporters on a conference call Monday. As a result, MacLellan was forced to clear cap space and traded winger Marcus Johansson for a second and third round pick.

What makes this somewhat surprising is the fact that Kuznetsov was a restricted free agent.

RFAs are essentially free agents in name only. In reality, they have few options as the team still owns their negotiating rights. Sure, a player could potentially seek an offer sheet from another team, but those are considered largely taboo among general managers and are very rarely offered to anyone. Some players are eligible for arbitration, but depending on the player and the situation, it could actually hurt a player’s position just as easily as help.

RELATED: Grubauer is closing in on a contract extension

All of this begs the question, why was Kuznetsov’s deal so high? The reason is that Kuznetsov is no ordinary free agent.

“I think just the situation Kuznetsov was in with the ability to go play in Russia for two years and earn as much money or more than he's making here and then come back as a UFA, he had leverage," MacLellan said. "We lost our arbitration leverage with his ability to do that so we had to comply with his demands.”

Lots of Russian players negotiate with the KHL and it rarely means anything. Talking with the KHL is a bargaining chip to use when it comes time to negotiate a new contract in the NHL. Dmitry Orlov did just that before he re-signed with Washington for six years.

There are of course times when players leave the NHL to go back home to the KHL, but most of those players tend to be either fringe players who are struggling to find NHL jobs or the top stars.

The problem for the Capitals is that Kuznetsov was in the latter category.

The KHL is facing serious financial difficulties and getting paid is not always a guarantee. Just ask the players of Dynamo Moscow who were all declared free agents on Tuesday because the team’s new ownership decided they were no longer obligated to honor the team’s former financial commitments.

But if there is one thing the KHL hates more than paying its players, it’s losing the country’s top players to North America. KHL teams are willing to pay top dollar to bring those players back home and you can bet those paychecks will be on time.

Kuznetsov is a budding superstar center who, if not for Nicklas Backstrom, would already be playing on the top line. He knows that, the Caps know that and the KHL knows that. That means lowballing Kuznetsov with a bridge deal wasn’t an option. They had to pay him or watch him leave for the KHL.

Considering how good Kuznetsov is and how good the team projects him to be, it was a risk worth taking, according to MacLellan.

“I think he's going to be a top-end center in the league and next year and going forward it's going to be a good contract.”

MORE CAPITALS: Caps re-sign 23-year-old Travis Boyd

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How the Capitals could face the Penguins in the first round of the playoffs

How the Capitals could face the Penguins in the first round of the playoffs

For the past two weeks, updates to the 2020 postseason have been rolling in making it hard to keep track of them all. A very different 2020 postseason awaits when play resumes so you may not know all the ins and outs of how the playoffs will work. Right now the most important things for Capitals fans to remember are that Washington is in, we don't know who they will play in the first round or where they will be seeded and yes, they could play the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round.

So let's go over the specifics.

Where will the Caps be seeded?

We don't know. Next question!

Washington finished third in the Eastern Conference and first in the Metropolitan Division, just barely edging out the Philadelphia Flyers, but that won't get them much. All this means is that the Caps are among the top four teams in the conference so they will play a three-game round-robin to determine the top four seeds. Washington will play Boston, Tampa Bay and Philadelphia each one time in games with regular-season rules (meaning shootouts instead of endless overtime). The team with the best record in that round-robin will earn the top seed in the conference. It doesn't matter that Boston had 10 more points than Washington when the season paused, the Caps could still jump to the top of the conference should the finish with a better record in these three games.

The only way in which regular-season records matter at this point is to determine the four teams that get to play in the round-robin and as a tiebreaker. Regular season points percentage will be used as the tiebreaker for teams tied after the round-robin.

Who will the Caps play in the playoffs?

We won't know that specifically for three reasons. First, we have to know where the Caps will be seeded and we won't until after the round-robin; second, we won't know until after the play-in round; and third, it was announced on Thursday that the teams will be reseeded after each round so it's possible we won't know exactly who the Caps will play until the play-in round is completely finished.


If that sounds like reseeding makes things more complicated, it does in a sense, but it was the right decision. Yes, when the playoffs begin we won't be able to have a clear bracket for the playoffs what? I mean, does that really matter? What reseeding does is prevent the top seed from getting screwed. A bracket is made with the assumption that the top team will win each round. That means the No. 4 is supposed to play the No. 5 in the first round, but what happens if a No. 12 upsets the No. 5 in the play-in? All of a sudden, the No. 4 team would be playing the lowest seed left in the tournament while the No. 1 would have to play the winner of the No. 8 vs. No. 9 series.

That does not make sense.

Yes, trying to explain who the Caps could play after their bye from the play-in series is enough to make your head spin, but trust me, it makes a lot more logical sense to do it this way and ensures the better playoff matchups in the later rounds as opposed to the early rounds which has been a problem for the NHL since they adopted their division system.

How could the Caps play the Penguins in the first round?

For most Capitals fans, whenever the playoffs roll around everyone starts looking to see if a Washington-Pittsburgh postseason rematch is in the cards. Despite describing how we basically don't know anything about who the Caps could play in the first round yet, there is actually a pretty straightforward path for a Caps-Penguins matchup.

As the No. 5 seed, Pittsburgh is the highest-seeded team in the play-in round. Now that we know the NHL will reseed after each round, if the Penguins win their series against the Montreal Canadiens, they are guaranteed to play the No. 4 seed in the first round of the playoffs. If Washington finishes last in the round-robin and Pittsburgh wins its series, get out the popcorn and work on that bird celebration, because it will mean a Caps vs. Penguins series yet again.

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NHL to move to Phase 2 of return to play plan by June 8

NHL to move to Phase 2 of return to play plan by June 8

The NHL will transition to Phase 2 of its return to play plan, the reopening of team facilities for training activities, on June 8, the league announced Thursday.

Since the season was paused on March 12, the league has considered itself to be in Phase 1 of the plan, meaning self-isolation. While the NHL and NHLPA have made progress off the ice towards a return to play negotiating things such as the playoff format, throughout all those talks the league still remained in Phase 1. This is the first concrete step the NHL has taken towards an eventual return to the ice.

"Beginning June 8 – subject to each Club’s satisfaction of all of the requirements set out in the Phase 2 Protocol – Clubs will be permitted to reopen their training facilities in their home city to allow players to participate in individualized training activities (off-ice and on-ice)," a statement released by the NHL said. "Players will be participating on a voluntary basis and will be scheduled to small groups (i.e., a maximum of six Players at any one time, plus a limited number of Club staff). The various measures set out in the Phase 2 Protocol are intended to provide players with a safe and controlled environment in which to resume their conditioning."

As the statement notes, participation in Phase 2 activities are voluntary and will be limited to six players at a time. The Capitals have not yet set a date for the team's start of Phase 2.


Phase 3 of the plan is training camp and, despite Thursday's announcement, we remain far off from that point. According to Pierre LeBrun, the earliest the league would start camps is July 10. Phase 4 is then the resumption of the season.

Presumably, Phase 3 will not start without a date set for when Phase 4. It is hard to believe the NHLPA would agree to an indefinite training camp. Phase 2, however, can begin without any formalized dates for Phases 3 and 4.  So while this is certainly a step towards the return of hockey and a sign that things are improving, all the difficult deciions regarding health and safety protocols as well as a timeline for the eventual 2020 postseason are still yet to be decided.

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