Each preseason the story is the same. “If Evgeny Kuznetsov can just put together a full season…” Or, “If Kuznetsov can have that breakout season we know he is capable of, the Capitals can make a run…”. The storylines are as predictable as the outcome of a Civil War reenactment.
We’ve seen Kuznetsov cycle through numerous sizzling spurts as well as long, long arid spells during his time in Washington. In the end, the hope for Kuznetsov has always been that he will eventually put it all together and become one of the league’s best forwards.
But what if we’ve seen the best of Kuznetsov? And 20 goals and 50 assists a season is about what we can expect from him from here on out? Is that good enough? Is it worth $7.8 million AAV?
This post presents the hypothesis that we’ve likely seen Kuznetsov’s best, and that there is no magical season ahead that we’ve all been waiting for. But more importantly, it considers his historical statistical output, and asks if his output is good enough to remain a Washington Capital, at his current cost, during these financially tough times.
Consider this following scouting report from a decade ago.
The following video is from Kuznetsov’s draft day back in 2010. Listen to “the knock” on him during Bob McKenzie’s scouting report presented towards the end of the short three-minute clip.
“The knock on him, like other really skilled, high-end players is that he doesn’t bring it every night, that there is a huge inconsistency factor there.”
That was said 10 years ago. One can argue that the scouting report was spot-on, has held true over the past decade, and remains very true today.
Simply put, it turns out we got what was expected.
Let’s take a basic high-level look at Kuznetsov’s stats for his entire professional career. Somewhat surprisingly, Kuznetsov has reached the 20-goal plateau just four times in his 13-year pro career. That’s certainly not what most would consider elite, and many might argue it’s fairly mediocre.
Kuznetsov has managed 50 or more assists just three times in his NHL career and topped 40 assists just four times. Offensively, those are also well shy of elite status.
Kuznetov’s SPAR (Standings Points Above Replacement) has essentially been flatline since joining to Capitals in 2015, which also agrees with the general sporadic fluctuations in Kuznetsov’s play.
But is he making elite money?
The Edmonton Oilers announced on August 17, 2017, that they had signed center Leon Draisaitl to an eight-year contract worth $68 million, with a cap hit of $8.5 million AAV. The contract is similar to the one Kuznetsov signed just a few weeks earlier.
Since signing the contract, Draisaitl has 118 goals and 167 assists in 231 regular season games played for a 1.23 points per game average. That’s elite.
Since signing his 8-year, $62.4 million contract on July 2, 2017, Kuznetsov has just 67 goals, 140 assists in 218 regular season games played for a 0.95 points per game played average. That’s second only to Alex Ovechkin at 1.05 points per game. That’s not bad.
Simply put, Draisaitl is well worth his deal. Kuznetsov is lagging.
But Is Status-Quo Kuzy Good Enough at $7.8 million AAV?
Kuznetsov’s contract was likely based on the hope that his best years were ahead of him, and that he would indeed pull it all together and take a step up into being an elite-level player. That simply hasn’t come.
The biggest reason to keep Kuznetsov is his ability to shine in the postseason, with the 2017-18 postseason the primary example. With Kuzy in the postseason lineup, a long postseason run is possible. He can bust out any night. That might be enough for Brian MacLellan to hang on to Kuznetsov for the remainder of the Ovechkin-Backstrom window.
Kuznetsov will turn 29 in May. With the league’s “peak-prime” currently considered to be from 23-27 years of age, it’s safe to say that Kuznetsov is on the downside of his NHL career. He may have many productive years ahead of him, but the time for waiting for that one breakout season may have passed. Only time will tell.
Maybe most important is the current state of the league. Many teams are struggling financially right now, and dealing with the flat salary cap. The Capitals are no different, and have the added pressure of trying to address several immediate needs in the waning years of the Ovechkin-Backstrom “window.”
Salary cap money is extremely tight for Brian MacLellan. The Capitals need to address a struggling blueline, and aging top-six and the need to sign a backup netminder. A tall order with just a little over $7 million in cap space to play with.
MacLellan can make any number of moves to free-up cap space without parting ways with Kuznetsov. The overriding question is what move or moves make the most sense at this point in time, and what is best for the organization over the long term.
Is Kuzy a value at $7.8 million AAV? Probably not. But what is the next move should MacLellan decide to go in a different direction. Can the Capitals improve greatly with an extra $7.8 million and without Evgeny Kuznetsov? Probably not, but that remains to be seen.
Regardless, at some point in the not-to-distant future the 20 goals-per-season will not be worth the $7.8 million AAV. Window or no window. It’s just a question of when.
By Jon Sorensen