When rumors leak from an NHL market about a star player being available via trade, there’s sometimes fire to accompany the smoke. When that team’s GM openly implies that player is available? There’s a good chance he plays for a new team before long. That appears to be the case with Washington Capitals center Evgeny Kuznetsov based on comments GM Brian MacLellan made at the team’s season-ending presser following a five-game elimination at the hands of the Boston Bruins.
When asked by a reporter during Wednesday’s Zoom call to address the Kuznetsov trade speculation and whether he was indeed available, MacLellan didn’t shy away from the question.
“We’re always open to trade people if it makes sense for what’s going on,” MacLellan said. “If it’s going to make our team better, I think we’re open to it. I don’t think anybody’s off the table. We’re not going to trade ‘Ovie’ (Alex Ovechkin) or ‘Backy’ (Nicklas Backstrom), those types of people, but I think you have to be open on anything. So we may talk to anybody about anybody.”
MacLellan may as well have strapped on a sandwich board with ‘KUZNETSOV OFFERS WELCOME’ scrawled on it. MacLellan spoke of trades that “make sense,” and trading Kuznetsov makes more sense now that it ever has. He is reportedly not in great standing with the franchise after a series of infractions over the past few seasons. He tested positive for cocaine at the start of 2019-20, earning himself a three-game suspension from the NHL and a four-year ban for international play from the IIHF. He contracted COVID-19 at the start of 2020-21 after violating the league protocol for close-contact socialization and tested positive a second time in early May shortly after being benched for a game for being late to a team function.
Kuznetsov hasn’t had his off-ice behavior in order the past couple years, and it’s manifested in his play. From 2015-16 through 2018-19, he averaged 75 points per 82 games and was mostly entrenched as Washington’s No. 1 center. The past two seasons, he slipped to 64 points per 82 games. His 5-on-5 play has declined over that span, too, with his shot generation, chance generation and high-danger shot attempts all reaching their lowest levels since he was a rookie. This season, he never earned new coach Peter Laviolette’s trust. Kuznetsov’s 16:34 of average ice time was his lowest number since 2014-15, his first full season in the league.
So it’s understandable if the Capitals want to refresh their lineup after Kuznetsov only got healthy in time to log three playoff games this season, going pointless. Despite his stock taking a hit in recent years, he has trade appeal. His sublime puckhandling talent is undeniable. He’s a proven playoff performer, having compiled 32 points en route to a Stanley Cup in 2017-18, the fourth-highest post-season total of any NHL player in the past 25 years. Despite his somewhat tarnished image of late, his quirky charisma and penchant for memorable quips still give him a degree of marketability to salvage. Having just turned 29 last week, he’s hardly a greybeard. He can still play well enough to justify his $7.8-million price tag over the final four seasons of his contract.
So which teams should consider targeting Kuznetsov based on their needs? Consider these five, listed alphabetically. Keep in mind that the Caps don’t have to get equal win-now value back in a hockey trade, as acquiring younger players or futures, for example, would help the team retool while also freeing up financial space to pursue free-agent upgrades.
The Wild were arguably the biggest surprise success story of 2020-21, and they did it fuelled by sensational rookie Kirill Kaprizov playing with…Victor Rask? It’s exciting to imagine what Kaprizov could do with a legitimate top-line center, and the shared Russian nationality could generate instant chemistry between Kaprizov and Kuznetsov. They were teammates at the 2019 World Championship. If GM Bill Guerin doesn’t want to surrender draft picks or a top prospect such as Mathew Boldy in a Kuznetsov deal, he could dangle RFA right winger Kevin Fiala or, if the Caps want to bolster their defense corps, Matt Dumba, who seems to be the subject of trade scuttlebutt every off-season. It’s worth noting Kuznetsov has a 15-team no-trade list. Minnesota is a rabid hockey market, but it’s a less glamorous market than the other candidates I’ve listed here.
The Habs have significantly bolstered their winger corps, having signed Tyler Toffoli, traded for Josh Anderson and promoted Cole Caufield in the past year, but they desperately need a higher-end puck distributor to drive their underwhelming offense. They’ll have a hole opening up in their depth chart anyway if Phillip Danault doesn’t re-sign. They could build a trade package around Jesperi Kotkaniemi. He’s underachieved since Montreal reached on him at third overall in the 2018 draft, but he’s still just 20. Interestingly enough, his ceiling might be something similar to the current version of Kuznetsov. Acquiring Kotkaniemi would put the Caps into more of a retooling position, with Kotkaniemi and Connor McMichael representing their long-term upside at center. As an RFA, Kotkaniemi needs a new contract for next season, but it’ll almost certainly be a bridge pact. He’d cost significantly less than Kuznetsov and free up cash for the Capitals who, let’s not forget, have to re-sign a UFA by the name of Alex Ovechkin.
NEW YORK RANGERS
Does it make that much sense? No, but little has made sense in Manhattan over the past month. Axing GM Jeff Gorton and president John Davidson, supposedly for “hockey reasons,” implies that Rangers owner James Dolan wants to accelerate the rebuild. Bringing in Kuznetsov to make some magic with Artemi Panarin would be very New York. In Ryan Strome and Mika Zibanejad, the Blueshirts also have viable center options to send Washington’s way to make a blockbuster hockey trade. Working against this idea, of course, is that it would be a divisional deal. The Rangers and Caps haven’t made a trade since 2018, and it involved minor-league types. The trade before that was in 2015 and only involved draft picks. So the clubs are hesitant to exchange high-profile players. That said: it would be an intriguing hockey fit for both sides. Stranger things have happened.
Fair or not, the Vegas Golden Knights’ instant success created expectations for the league’s 32nd franchise to make a similarly splashy start. Might Seattle cook up a pitch that brings a marquee scorer with a magnetic personality to the inaugural Kraken lineup? It depends on how willing MacLellan is to make drastic changes in D.C. He could send Kuznetsov to Seattle as compensation for the Kraken taking T.J. Oshie’s contract. That would give the Kraken two prominent veterans to build around while also freeing up significant cap space for the Capitals to remake their lineup.
VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS
From the moment Bill Foley was awarded an NHL franchise, he pledged to compete quickly for a Stanley Cup, and that’s all Vegas has done across its first four seasons. The Golden Knights aren’t afraid to make aggressive moves for big-money players, having traded top prospects to land Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone and shipped out dressing-room favorite blueliner Nate Schmidt to clear space for the Alex Pietrangelo signing last off-season. If there’s one glaring need in Sin City, it’s for a proper No. 1 pivot. William Karlsson is more of a No. 2. Chandler Stephenson is a better No. 3 who was forced atop the lineup for much of this season. Top prospect Cody Glass hasn’t yet made the leap to become an entrenched top-six forward in the NHL. Kuznetsov could be the last piece of a championship puzzle. Vegas also has a variety of palatable options to send Washington’s way in a deal. If the Caps still want a competitive veteran No. 2 center, that could be Karlsson. If they want to step backward to go forward later, they could target Glass, and the Golden Knights have already established that they’re willing to mortgage youth if it gets them closer to a Cup.
OTHER POTENTIAL KUZNETSOV SUITORS TO WATCH
Boston Bruins – If they don’t re-sign David Krejci, they’ll need a new second-line center.
Ottawa Senators – They are ready to start ascending and reportedly want “a veteran type first-line center.”
New York Islanders – They don’t score nearly enough, and Kuznetsov played the best hockey of his career under current Isles coach Barry Trotz when he was in Washington. Would mean another divisional trade, however.