The Case For Keeping Evgeny Kuznetsov


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.

Viable Options

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?

Statistics used in this post are courtesy of Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference, and JFresh Hockey. A glossary of advanced statistics is also available.

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.

Conclusion

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

About Justin Trudel

Justin is a lifelong Caps fan, with some of his first memories of the sport watching the team in the USAir Arena and the 1998 Stanley Cup appearance. Now a resident of St. Augustine, FL, Justin watches the Caps from afar. Justin graduated with a Bachelor's of Science in Political Science from Towson University, and a Master's of Science in Applied Information Technology from Towson University. Justin is currently a product manager at a non-profit in Jacksonville, FL. Justin enjoys geeking out over roster construction and cap management.
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12 Responses to The Case For Keeping Evgeny Kuznetsov

  1. GR in 430 says:

    You are too quick to discount the sheltering that Laviolette provided to Kuznetsov last year. If you start most of your shifts in the offensive zone, particularly at home where the coach can match you against weaker opponents, your stats are going to be much better than those who have to cover those D-zone starts for you against the other team’s top talent. If Kuznetsov really was a top 15 center, he’d be able to play against any of the opponents’ players, anywhere on the ice, and not force other people on his team to cover for his inadequacies.

    Among those inadequacies: Kuznetsov still sucks at faceoffs. His effort and effectiveness in the D-zone did improve at points last year, but it still isn’t good. He is ineffective along the boards. He tends to overpass instead of taking the easier shot.

    That said, he is the best overall puck carrier the Caps have. His zone entries are better than anybody else’s on the team, which is why he’s given that job on the power play. He has an effective shot when he chooses to use it.

    Kuznetsov is a talented player, just not a great NHL center most of the time. He has the skill set, just not the mindset. He indicated a couple of years ago that he wasn’t interested in working hard enough to be a great player. That might have changed recently, but he’s going to have to prove that.

    Unless he’s fundamentally changed his work ethic and life choices on and off the ice, he’s not worth anything like his cap hit in this flat-cap era. This is particularly true given that the Caps have so little cap space currently that they can’t even keep extra players on the roster, and are forced to play hurt players, or go with a short bench, if guys get dinged up but not bad enough to go in IR. That just wears everybody else out and reduces their overall effectiveness as a team.

    Given all of the above, Kuznetsov’s overall play — both offense and defense — shown over the past few seasons does not place him anywhere near top 15 centers in the NHL. As a result, I believe the Caps would be better off as a team without him. Give those sheltered starts to McMichael or even Eller and see what they do with them. Goals scored might go down, but so would goals against. The other centers would get easier minutes, so their numbers should improve. His cap space would allow the team to carry a full roster, permitting a rotation that provides a better chance to win when guys get dinged up, and keeps everybody fresher late in the season or during the playoffs.

    Hockey is a team sport. Individual talent is necessary but not sufficient to win a Cup. Kuznetsov doesn’t add enough to overall team effectiveness to justify keeping him at his annual cap hit.

  2. James W Lewis says:

    The goals will need to come from somewhere. I bet Ovechkin doesn’t get 25 next year. The Caps have always sought to venerate the players they have instead of pursuing the players they need.

    • Bill B. says:

      Ovi got 24 goals last season in 45 games, but he’s not going to get 1 more than that in 37 more games? That’s quite a prediction.

  3. Pat says:

    Only people that want him gone are the vaccine cultists. Idiocracy

  4. Jon Sorensen says:

    I’d give him until December/January and see what he does. He knows this is the last straw, he saw Vrána shipped to Detroit and Dilly to Winnipeg. He knows he has it pretty good in DC. Hopefully the fear kicks him in the pants and we see a good season from him. If not, deal him prior to the trade deadline for whatever you can get.

  5. Mark Eiben says:

    It’s a big year for him for sure. This will be interesting to see how he responds to all us grumblers and trade chatter around him. He did seem to have flashes of dominance but disappear a lot too. Over a long 82 game season it happens to most players but his ups and downs are pretty steep. He seemed to get the coaches messages so here’s hoping he has a real good year.

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  7. redLitYogi says:

    When he’s fully engaged and committed in a game, he’s elite. But no one is capable of being that 80 games in a year: it’s a punishing schedule. So there are two questions: 1. are the rumors that the team wanted to dump him actually going to motivate him or are they going to disengage him? It happens both ways. 2. Can we get the elite play out of him in two out of every three games? He’s worth it if we can. Can we get the elite play in 3 out of 4 games: now, we’re at the top of the division. Can we get it 9 out of 10 games? Now, we’re talking a team that is a legit contender. I think 2 out of 3 games is realistic and that makes him a legit IC on a good but not great team.

  8. Brent says:

    Holtby sucks.

  9. GR in 430 says:

    It really does come down to what Kuznetsov wants. He has said in the past that he’s not willing to work hard enough to be an elite player in the league.

    Given all the crap that has occurred the past couple of years, he might be willing to change that attitude, in fact might have already changed it and worked hard over the summer.

    Or the poor attitude might have been reinforced, and he’s willing to just take the money he’s owed whether he plays well or not. He might just look at it like he’s rich either way, so screw all of us critics. My fear, based on past behavior, is that Kuznetsov is much more likely to follow the latter path.

    The reality with the NHL’s guaranteed contracts is that once they’re signed, the player gets paid no matter how well they play — the team can trade him, send him to the minors, buy him out, but in each of those cases, the player gets the money.

    So it’s Kuznetsov’s choice. But if he still has the poor attitude, the Caps need him to go away soon, before he becomes an even bigger problem in the locker room.

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