Interesting speculation came out of St. Louis during Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final that could be of interest to the Washington Capitals: Vladimir Tarasenko wants out.
Per The Athletic’s Jeremy Rutherford, the Russian winger requested a trade. He reportedly is unhappy with how the Blues handled his shoulder injury, reduced his role and didn’t reward him the captaincy.
Meanwhile, in the District, rumors are still brewing in regards to Evgeny Kuznetsov’s future with the team. Frank Seravalli reported that the Capitals are “tired of his antics” and could move the center this offseason.
Given the situation, as well as similar cap hits and star power between both players, could Washington consider dealing Kuznetsov for Tarasenko?
Let’s break it down.
First off, both Tarasenko and Kuznetsov have elite playing ability. They’re dangerous and top-6 players capable of 60-plus point campaigns. Not only that, they take good care of the puck and are tremendous puck-handlers. Both have wicked shots, but the difference comes at their positions.
Kuznetsov’s a center known for his playmaking ability, while Tarasenko’s a right-wing and a sniper. The difference is a bit vital here, especially in regards to Washington.
Don’t get me wrong; Washington has depth down the middle. Beyond Kuznetsov, there’s Nicklas Backstrom, Lars Eller, Nic Dowd and up-and-comer Connor McMichael.
Following a breakout AHL rookie campaign, McMichael has made quite the case for a roster spot. Plus, Brian MacLellan does want to make the team younger. A promising pivot with plenty of upside does make losing Kuznetsov easier, but then the Caps have to consider the waiting tentacles of the Seattle Kraken.
In less than two weeks, the Capitals face several questions and uncertainty heading into the expansion draft. If they go with the 7-3-1 protection plan, they face the possibility of losing a top-6 guy or key center. Backstrom is the only forward with protection (NMC). Captain Alex Ovechkin will likely be exposed, but he’s a pending UFA and wants to re-sign with Washington. An extension is likely to happen after the draft so that the Capitals can protect more players.
The Caps could also elect to just expose Kuznetsov, but that’d take away a top-line center and the possibility of getting another top scorer in return. So, it’s unlikely they just let him go for nothing. And the same can be said for Tarasenko and St. Louis.
With that being the case, the draft could complicate things at pivot if Seattle goes for one of Washington’s centers, especially if the team ends up exposing a guy like Eller. At the end of the day, though, the Capitals blue line will be the more appealing target in my opinion. The d-corps feature a number of highly-touted players, and only three can be protected. Plus, Vitek Vanecek shows promise and could be an asset in goal (of course, this is assuming Ilya Samsonov gets the seal of protection).
There are plenty of pros, though. Beyond the expansion draft, the Capitals can benefit from more secondary scoring and another sniper to join Anthony Mantha, T.J. Oshie, Tom Wilson and Garnet Hathaway (especially if Oshie does somehow end up with Seattle). He can also help shake things up on the power play, which saw some decline down the stretch and in the postseason. The Capitals managed just two goals per game in the postseason, and their 14.3 percent success rate on the man advantage was the fourth-worst. Having Tarasenko could shake things up and an experienced, creative goal-scorer to the group.
Still, there’s a catch when it comes to the 29-year-old Tarasenko. Washington is looking to become a younger team, and between age recurring injuries, there may be a concern when it comes to his long-term health and continued production down the road. This shouldn’t be a deal-breaker though; Kuznetsov’s COVID-19 cases and off-ice situations have led to missed time, and both are the same age.
Let’s also take a look at the stats. Kuznetsov picked up just nine goals and 29 points through 41 games this season, experiencing stretches of inconsistency and off-ice issues that resulted in scratches. Tarasenko played in just 24 games, managing four goals and 10 helpers.
Over the last three seasons, Tarasenko’s CF% is higher at 51.51, while Kuznetsov sits at 47.40. However, Kuznetsov has a GF percentage of 56.97 while Tarasenko registered 50.78. It’s easy to see that Kuzy’s playmaking ability may better suit Washington, especially with Eller also being prone to injuries and bouts of adversity.
At the end of the day, there’s a lot to consider in a wild offseason ahead. The smart move may be to hold back for now and ponder the state of things following the expansion draft. If the center depth stays intact, and Washington isn’t up to giving Kuznetsov one more chance, moving him for Tarasenko wouldn’t be the worst thing.