With Washington Capitals training camp around the corner, it appears that Evgeny Kuznetsov is staying put for now.
Still, the future may be in flux going forward. Recently, the Athletic’s Tarik El-Bashir pondered the possibility of teams turning to the Capitals about Kuznetsov’s availability if and when Jack Eichel gets dealt. But for right now, the next logical step for the 29-year-old center in the District should be simple; it should be to take a step back.
In fact, that’s what Brian MacLellan appeared to do in the offseason. In his exit interview, he mentioned that no one was “off the table” except for Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom in regards to a potential trade. According to the long-time GM, that didn’t translate to shipping out Kuznetsov.
“He’s a good player. We like the player. We’ve never said we’re training Kuznetsov,” MacLellan said. “I said we’re open to discussions on most of our players for the trade market. If it comes up, it comes up. And if it doesn’t make sense, same as always. It’s never been, ‘We’re moving Kuznetsov’ as it’s been portrayed in a few places.”
Looking at the big picture, there doesn’t seem to be a deal out there that appears to “make sense” at the moment. Kuznetsov’s departure would leave a significant void in the team’s center depth. Getting anything less than a top-6 center back, even if the return would be a top-6 winger or top prospect/pick, wouldn’t help the team’s situation.
Heading into the 2021-22 campaign, Washington’s depth down the middle starts with Backstrom. The Swedish pivot led the Capitals in scoring last season and is showing no signs of slowing down. After that comes Kuznetsov to round out the top-6, followed by Lars Eller and Nic Dowd. Despite inconsistency, struggles and a couple of off-ice complications over the last couple of seasons, he’s still a capable point producer.
Prior to a 29-point season that saw two bouts of COVID-19 and a handful of healthy scratches in 2020-21, Kuznetsov was putting up 50-plus points a season. In 2018-19, he registered his second-straight 20-plus goal and 50-plus assist season, and in the shortened 2019-20 campaign, he dished 19 goals and 52 points in 63 games before the pause. In a full season, he would have been on pace for 23 goals and 62 points.
The Russian still has the skillset and potential to reach those totals. Also, the analytics point to positive signs going forward.
Last season, at 5-on-5, he led all Capitals forwards with a goals-for percentage of 65.38 last season. Not only that, but he also led all Washington forwards with at least 15GP in scoring chances-for percentage (57.92) Kuznetsov additionally led all Capitals centers in Corsi-for percentage (56.62) and expected goals-for percentage (58.03) at all strengths. Not only that, but he also led all Washington forwards with at least 15GP in scoring chances-for percentage (57.92). Only Nicklas Backstrom had a better shots-for percentage.
On the scoresheet, last year was far from memorable, but as Peter Laviolette pointed out, his season was less than ideal and limited a lot of his opportunities to produce.
“[His season] was marked by the 30-plus days on COVID protocol… it’s the aftermath of coming back and trying to find the speed, the pace and the skill,” Laviolette said. “I don’t think he ever hit the gear or stride that he wanted to or that he wants to as a player.”
Overall, a full 82-game season will tell a more accurate story. In May, Kuznetsov said he was determined to prove that he belongs in D.C.
“[Last year] wasn’t an easy one, you know… every 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 this is what I’m trying to do right now,” Kuznetsov said. “Figure out some things and then get back to work and you know, just be in shape.”