It’s no wonder that Capitals fans and Capitals management have grown increasingly frustrated with Evgeny Kuznetsov. After two bouts with COVID, violating the COVID protocol, arriving late to a team function, lackluster performance on the ice, the infamous video of him in a Las Vegas hotel room with cocaine in plain view and the suspension by the IIHF for testing positive for a banned substance, patience for Kuznetsov has worn razor-thin.
But make no mistake, Kuznetsov is a top 15-center in the NHL when he’s healthy and engaged. The latter, his engagement, has been a real issue for Kuznetsov. In fact it’s been an issue for from day one, something that was noted by TSN’s Bob McKenzie on Kuznetsov’s draft day back in 2010.
When Kuznetsov is on, he’s among the best players on the ice. We all saw the show he put on in the 2018 Stanley Cup playoff run, but that seems like a distant memory now.
So with all that’s been mentioned, you might be questioning why the title of this post is what it is. Across the internet, many Capitals fans have been clamoring for General Manager Brian MacLellan to trade Kuznetsov. Some had even pushed for him to be exposed to the Seattle Kraken for selection in the recent expansion draft. At this point, both of those options seemed like bad asset management for a team that lacks a true replacement for Kuznetsov’s role in the lineup, particularly at the tail end of a contending window in the Ovechkin era.
Salary Cap Issues
Realistically, there are a lot of constraints surrounding a potential trade of Kuznetsov. One significant constraint is his contract ($7.8 million cap hit with four years remaining) in conjunction with the flat salary cap the league has imposed upon its teams.
Moving Kuznetsov’s contract would be burdensome, not to mention the fact that he has a modified no-trade clause that allows him to submit a 15-team list of teams he will not accept a trade to. It’s unknown as to which teams would are on that list.
Lack of Suitable Replacements
If the Capitals were to move Kuznetsov, another top-six center would have to come back the other way. There are no long-term sustainable options in the Capitals’ roster and prospect pipeline that would be able to immediately play the minutes and scenarios Kuznetsov plays.
Heralded prospect Connor McMichael may be ready for those types of minutes in the near future, but he’ll likely be playing in Hershey for another season to further his development. Realistically, there are only a handful of feasible options (read: no chance on Jack Eichel), and it’s questionable if they’d even be an upgrade or even-trade for Kuznetsov.
One option is Calgary Flames center Sean Monahan. He currently has two years left on his contract with a cap hit of $6.375M. He’s had a few solid seasons in Calgary, with his career best coming in 2018-19 where he put up 34 goals, 48 assists for 82 points in 78 games played. His last two seasons, though, have not been close to that 2018-19 performance (2019-20: 22 G and 22 A in 70 GP; 2021: 10 G and 18 A in 50 GP).
In comparison, Kuznetsov’s best season came in 2017-18 with 27 goals and 56 assists for 83 points in 79 games played. In 2019-20, Kuznetsov had 19 goals and 33 assists for 52 points in 63 games played. In 2021, Kuznetsov had 9 goals and 20 assists in 41 games played. All in all, Kuznetsov scores at a higher clip than Monahan. But what do the advanced stats have to show?
Here’s Kuznetsov and Monahan’s Rate Adjusted Plus Minus (RAPM) over the past three seasons, courtesy of Evolving-Hockey:
Overall, Kuznetsov performs considerably better in the offensive marks around Goals For per sixty minutes and Expected Goals For per sixty minutes. They both have their struggles defensively, with Kuznetsov finishing with better marks in Corsi Shot Attempts against per sixty minutes.
If we narrow the scope to just last season, here’s where the differences get starker:
Kuznetsov improved his defensive game considerably last season, especially after Head Coach Peter Laviolette asked him to play more responsibly, defensively. Kuznetsov was better than Monahan in every RAPM metric last season, making a trade involving Kuznetsov and Monahan pretty unbalanced, unless Calgary added more to the package. But with the Capitals’ cap space predicament, it’d likely have to be a pick or a prospect. With the Capitals’ win-now mentality still going strong with Ovechkin and Backstrom locked up for the next four seasons together and Ovechkin having a fifth season, it’s hard to conceive they’d take a clear downgrade in a Kuznetsov trade.
Other teams that have the cap space to absorb Kuznetsov’s contract are either in a position where they’re rebuilding (Arizona Coyotes, New Jersey Devils, Nashville Predators, Anaheim Ducks, Detroit Red Wings, Ottawa Senators, and the Buffalo Sabres) or are in the same division as the Capitals (New York Islanders, Columbus Blue Jackets, New York Rangers, and the Carolina Hurricanes). It would be pretty hard to believe that Brian MacLellan would look to move Kuznetsov within the division unless the package was impossible to pass on.
If Kuznetsov intends to stay in Washington, he’ll likely have all of the divisional opponents excluded from his 15 team no-trade list. Perhaps he would even have all the Eastern Conference teams excluded from his no-trade list, forcing MacLellan to trade him within the conference.
Kuznetsov Isn’t Performing Poorly
While there’s been some disappointment around Kuznetsov’s performance, he’s far from playing poorly. He hasn’t been putting up gaudy numbers or performing like he did in that magical Stanley Cup run in 2018, but he’s still a high quality player. Here’s Evolving-Hockey’s Player Card for Kuznetsov for the 2021 season:
The most surprising thing here for most folks would be the fact that Kuznetsov performed in the 70th percentile defensively in Goals Above Replacement (GAR) among his peers.
For context, in the 2019-20 season, he was in the second percentile, meaning 98% of his peers performed better than him in defensive GAR. This warrants the belief that Kuznetsov is inherently coachable and will improve in certain aspects of his game when asked.
The other side of this is that Kuznetsov had 77.6% of his zone starts occur in the offensive zone, compared to 61.5% in 2019-20. There’s some give and take there, but it’s unlikely that a 16.1% net increase in offensive zone starts would result in a 68% net increase in defensive GAR percentile ranking.
Here’s JFreshHockey’s player card for Kuznetsov based off the last three seasons:
Kuznetsov has elite generation in primary assists per sixty minutes (A1/60) and has high marks in goals scored per sixty minutes (G/60). On top of that, on the right side of the graphic above, you can see that Kuznetsov actually improved in offensive Wins Above Replacement (WAR) and defensive WAR. His finishing WAR slightly decreased from the 2019-20 season to the 2021 season.
Realistically, it would be difficult to trade Kuznetsov for market value at this point. On-ice performance aside, the notoriety around Kuznetsov’s off-ice issues causes teams to hesitate when considering a deal to acquire him. On top of that, with many teams looking for a top line quality center currently focused on potentially acquiring Buffalo’s Jack Eichel, the market for Kuznetsov would likely come more into play for the teams that didn’t acquire Eichel. But, as we’re approaching training camp in the coming month and the season starting in October, a Kuznetsov trade seems les and less likely.
Kuznetsov will have to prove that he’s focused on performing on the ice and staying out of trouble off the ice. A solid 2021-22 season paired with a quiet season off the ice would likely quell a lot of the trade talks around Kuznetsov. Ultimately, when Kuznetsov is on his game, the Capitals are a very good team. Without Kuznetsov on the roster or performing highly, they’re mediocre.
Kuznetsov knows he’s on thin ice, and a potential trade is lingering at his doorstep. He knows that he likely has one last chance to prove his worth, and that could be exactly what he and the Capitals need to stoke his game.
Kuznetsov will clearly be a focal point for the Capitals’ success or lack thereof in the 2021-22 season. All eyes will be on him to perform and show he’s not an issue off of the ice.
By Justin Trudel