5 Possible Trade Destinations for the Washington Capitals' Evgeny Kuznetsov
Could the Washington Capitals listen to trade offers this summer for Evgeny Kuznetsov?
That's what TSN's Pierre LeBrun suggested on May 4, noting the 28-year-old center and Ilya Samsonov were scratched from a recent game for being late to a team function. LeBrun also pointed out Kuznetsov was part of a group of four Capitals who violated the COVID-19 protocols earlier this year, and that in September 2019, the NHL suspended him three games for "inappropriate conduct."
Factor in Kuznetsov's inconsistent play, and he's reportedly starting to "irritate" some within the Washington organization, though LeBrun didn't indicate who they were.
After coming to Washington from the KHL in 2014, Kuznetsov's offensive skills and chemistry with captain Alex Ovechkin soon made him part of the Capitals core. He tallied 52 or more points per season between 2015-16 and 2019-20, including a career-high 83 points in 2017-18. He was also the leading scorer of the 2018 playoffs with 32 points during the Capitals' run to the Stanley Cup.
While the Capitals try to hang on to second place in the MassMutual East Division, Kuznetsov is not enjoying a stellar season. His 29 points in 41 games rank sixth on the team, though he's tied with Tom Wilson for second with four game-winning goals.
Trading Kuznetsov this summer won't be easy. Cap Friendly shows him with four years remaining on his contract with an annual average value of $7.8 million and a 15-team no-trade list.
With the salary cap remaining at $81.5 million for 2021-22, there aren't many teams that could afford to take on his expensive cap hit. His recent disciplinary issues could also dampen his trade value. Finding a decent return that perhaps includes a young forward with the potential to become a first-line center could also prove challenging.
Nevertheless, Kuznetsov's playmaking skills could prove attractive to teams seeking additional scoring punch at center. Here's a look at five possible landing spots.
The Arizona Coyotes will miss the playoffs for the eighth time in nine seasons. Having parted ways with head coach Rick Tocchet, first-year general manager Bill Armstrong could also decide to shake up his roster in the offseason.
Kuznetsov could be a fit in Arizona if the Coyotes aren't on his no-trade list. It would provide him a fresh start in a warm-weather market under less pressure. His offensive skills and postseason experience could provide a boost for the Coyotes.
The lack of a proven top-line center is a longstanding issue for the Coyotes. Current centers Christian Dvorak and Nick Schmaltz have yet to prove themselves capable of handling that role. It's been a contributing factor behind a Coyotes offense that was 21st this season in goals-per-game average (2.68).
Kuznetsov could fit well on the Coyotes' top line alongside right wing Phil Kessel and left winger Clayton Keller. Kessel, 33, enjoyed a fine bounce-back performance this season, reaching 20 goals for the 12th time in his career. The 22-year-old Keller, meanwhile, could benefit from skating with an experienced playmaking center.
With $50.1 million invested in 12 players for 2021-22, the Coyotes have the cap space to absorb Kuznetsov's $7.8 million cap hit. They could offer up Dvorak ($4.5 million annually through 2024-25) or Schmaltz ($5.9 million annually through 2025-26) as part of the return in a package deal. One of them might benefit from being an offensive center on a deeper club like the Capitals.
Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews missed the entire 2020-21 season battling an undisclosed illness, and his absence contributed to the Blackhawks missing the playoffs. On April 21, TSN's Darren Dreger reported Toews should be ready to return to their lineup next season.
Should Toews suffer a setback, however, the Blackhawks could seek a proven first-line center. If it's a long-term issue, Kuznetsov could end up on their radar.
The Blackhawks' depth at center took a big hit this season. In addition to Toews' absence, promising Kirby Dach also missed all but 18 games recovering from surgery to repair a fractured wrist and the aggravated scar tissue associated with that procedure.
Kuznetsov wouldn't replace Toews' two-way skills, but his offensive abilities would mesh well with wingers Patrick Kane and Alex DeBrincat. While the Blackhawks have $76 million invested in 22 players for 2021-22, they'll get $10.8 million in cap relief with Brent Seabrook and Andrew Shaw on permanent long-term injury reserve. They could have an additional $10.5 million if Toews can't return.
The Capitals could ask for Dach as part of the return, but the Blackhawks won't part with the promising 20-year-old. They could offer up center Dylan Strome, who might benefit from a trade after struggling in Chicago the past two years. Pius Suter could be another possibility depending on how contract discussions go with the soon-to-be restricted free agent.
Columbus Blue Jackets
The Columbus Blue Jackets are in need of a first-line center after shipping Pierre-Luc Dubois to the Winnipeg Jets in January for winger Patrik Laine and forward Jack Roslovic. Laine has struggled in Columbus without a quality setup man, while Roslovic is still adjusting as a full-time center.
Kuznetsov could be the answer to the Blue Jackets' problem, provided they're not among the clubs on his no-trade list. Recent departures of top players have given the Jackets a reputation as a place that stars want to avoid.
Earlier this month, The Athletic's Aaron Portzline interviewed several former Jackets on condition of anonymity who suggested the problem was management's tendency to play hardball in contract talks. However, one of them also said he enjoyed the quieter pace in Columbus, while another said they treat their players pretty well.
Perhaps the opportunity to skate alongside Laine could persuade Kuznetsov to accept a trade to the Jackets. His experience with Ovechkin in Washington could work well playing alongside Laine, helping the 23-year-old winger regain his 40-goal touch.
The Jackets are also among the few clubs who could comfortably absorb his full cap hit. They have $55.7 million committed to 15 players for 2021-22, though a new contract for Laine will eat into that figure. Still, they could shed some cap space depending on what they offer to the Capitals.
A lack of scoring punch has hampered the Nashville Predators for some time. Since 2018-19, they've ranked 20th in goals-per-game average (2.88), while their power-play percentage (15.6) is the league's third-worst over that period.
Predators center Ryan Johansen has come up in trade speculation. Perhaps swapping him with Kuznetsov could provide a much-needed offensive spark.
Like Kuznetsov, Johansen is a skilled playmaker whose production has declined over the past two seasons. Both carry nearly identical cap hits (Kuznetsov with $7.8 million, Johansen with $8 million) through 2024-25. Given the potential difficulty of moving high-salaried players under a flattened salary cap, this would be almost a dollar-for-dollar swap.
Both players could benefit from changing locations. Johansen would have an opportunity to regain his scoring touch on the first line with Alex Ovechkin or the second line alongside winger Anthony Mantha. Kuznetsov, meanwhile, could skate alongside Filip Forsberg and either Viktor Arvidsson or promising Eeli Tolvanen on the Predators' top line.
New York Rangers
Following a front-office shakeup earlier this month, the New York Rangers promoted Chris Drury to team president and general manager. With club CEO James Dolan reportedly keen to accelerate the roster rebuild, Drury could be in the market for a center with considerable playoff experience like Kuznetsov.
Mika Zibanejad and Ryan Strome are the Rangers' top two centers. Neither of them, however, has as much postseason experience as Kuznetsov. Zibanejad has appeared in 31 playoff contests, and Strome in just 18.
Zibanejad carries a $5.4 million annual salary-cap hit and Strome $4.5 million. Slated to become unrestricted free agents next summer, both players will seek significant raises.
Drury could attempt to shake up the Rangers in the offseason by shipping out Zibanejad and/or Strome. He'll need a suitable replacement, someone who could skate alongside high-scoring left winger Artemi Panarin. Under contract for four more seasons at $7.8 million annually, Kuznetsov would make a good replacement for either.
The Rangers also possess plenty of promising talent to make a competitive bid for Kuznetsov. Young roster players such as wingers Alexis Lafreniere, Kaapo Kakko or Vitali Kravtsov, center Filip Chytil or defenseman K'Andre Miller could tempt the Capitals if one or two were included in a package offer.