During the first season of an eight-year, $62.4 million contract, Evgeny Kuznetsov, at age 25, set a career-high in goals (27) and points (83). He averaged a point-per-game (1.05) for the first time in his career. In the 2018 postseason, Kuzy centered the Capitals’ first line, scored the series-ending overtime goal against the Penguins, and led the league in assists (20) and points (32). Kuznetsov’s electric performance helped the Capitals win the Stanley Cup for the first time and garnered the Russian center Conn Smythe Trophy consideration as playoff MVP.
Since then, Kuznetsov’s production has decreased during the last three seasons as off-the-ice issues have garnered most of his major headlines. He was suspended three games by Gary Bettman for “inappropriate conduct” in 2019, banned four years by the IIHF for failing a drug test, broke NHL protocol in 2021 (garnering the Capitals a $100k fine) and contracted coronavirus, suspended by the Capitals later in the year for disciplinary issues, and contracted coronavirus again.
After Kuznetsov got in hot water with the Capitals again in May, reports emerged that the team would look to move on from over the offseason as Kuzy’s issues were tiring members of the Capitals’ organization.
When asked directly if he would deal Kuznetsov this summer, Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan did not exactly deny the reports.
“I think we’re always open to trading people if it makes sense for what’s going on if it makes our team better,” MacLellan said. “I don’t think anybody’s off the table. We’re not going to trade Ovi or Backy, those types of people, but you have to be open on anything. So we would talk to anybody about any player.”
Kuznetsov scored 29 points in 41 games during the 2020-21 season, missing 15 games due to being on the COVID-19 Unavailability List. His 0.71 points-per-game were his worst since the 2016-17 season. This happened despite Kuzy getting 72.5 percent of his starts in the offensive zone — a team high and 20 percent higher than the year before.
“It’s tough to evaluate his year. He had COVID twice,” MacLellan said. “It’s hard for us to determine what impact that had on his performance. It was inconsistent throughout the year. We needed more from that position, from that amount of salary that we expend on him.
“I think he’s the key to our organization in what decisions get made of how he plays or how he comes out of this,” MacLellan added. “We won the Stanley Cup because we had a great one-two punch and Eller in the third spot. Center depth is important. We need him to play at his highest ability and if he can’t play at his highest ability, we’re not going to be a good team and we’d have to make some other decisions.”
The Capitals GM was asked if he was still confident the team, including new head coach Peter Laviolette, could get him back to that top tier superstar level.
“I don’t know. I think it’s been inconsistent for the last few years here and it’s hurt our team,” he said.
Laviolette agreed with MacLellan that Kuznetsov was “inconsistent” due to his 30-plus days in COVID protocol.
“I don’t think he ever hit the gear or the stride that he wanted to and had the impact in the game that he wanted to, or that he wants to as a player,” Laviolette said. “The importance of that I think is crucial to a team. You’re talking about a top center. Somebody who has in his past been the difference maker for a winning team. And so it will be a big summer for him to train, come into camp in great shape, and try and move forward with a better season.”
Meanwhile, Kuznetsov shrugged off reports of a possible trade and pointed to that being the nature of the beast of playing a team sport for a profession.
“No, no it does not bother me, no,” he said. “You know, all I am worried about is what is inside the team and the coaches and what they think actually and what they wants me to do. If I am not success, those rumors will be for every player like that, you know? That’s the business and I understand what is going to happen. My job is just be in shape, practice, and perform on the ice. I am a nice person and I am never complain about anything if I understand it. If I didn’t success on the ice, then I know I have to be better and that’s how life would be.
“It was a tough year, you know. We didn’t get where we wanted to be and it’s always frustrating. Any time you have a season like that you always want to go back as quick as possible to work and be successful next year so that’s what I am trying to do right now. Figure out some things and get back to work and just be in shape. I hope I am not going to get the COVID third time and everything will stay positive.”
Headline photo: Ian Oland/RMNB
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