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.
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.”
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