Evgeny Kuznetsov, the $7,800,000 question mark, is the key to the Washington Capitals‘ success heading into the 2021-2022 season. As talented as they come, Kuznetsov has been about as frustrating as they come.
A quote often attributed to Albert Einstein comes to mind, “The definition of ‘insanity’ is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” As Vitek Vanecek returns and the roster appears to be taking form, that’s the question that many in DC are asking themselves. Why is Brian MacLellan assembling a near carbon-copy of the team that embarrassingly ran out of gas in round one against the Boston Bruins just one season ago? Where is Connor McMichael? Why has Evgeny Kuznetsov not been traded?
Kuznetsov has rightfully earned the ire of the fans in recent years, the supremely talented Russian center has been inconsistent at best since a dazzling playoff performance in 2018. On-the-ice, Kuzy often looks disinterested. His two-way game and abilities in the faceoff circle are so bad that it appeared last season that Peter Laviolette and the coaching staff all but took away his privileges to take defensive-zone draws. The Russian playmaker appears hesitant to shoot the puck or he opts to try and make the pretty play and winds up stalling play for his team when he ought to be the one driving the play.
Off-the-ice, it’s worse, back in 2019, Kuznetsov was suspended from international play for four years for testing positive for cocaine. The NHL levied it’s own three-game suspension. At the time, his teammates largely stood by his side and offered their support. The team’s captain, Alex Ovechkin, had this to say about his fellow countryman.
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“Not as the captain, as a friend and a close friend, I think we should support him,” Ovechkin said. “[Kuznetsov] realize he makes mistake. Everybody makes mistake in life, you guys as well. Sometimes the best thing is just support him and be at his side and don’t leave him alone. I think all other things you have to be with him and when it’s a hard moment you have to stay together.”
Hoping for a return to his 2017-2018 form where Kuzy posted career highs in goals (27) and points (83), he posted another disappointing year in 2020-2021. He found himself on the NHL’s COVID-19 list twice and benched heading into the playoffs for being late to a team function appeared to put him on thin ice. There were reports that the Capitals had grown tired of his antics and were looking to trade Kuznetsov. More recently, MacLellan, appeared to squash some of the rampant speculation around the situation.
“[Kuznetsov]’s a good player,” MacLellan began. “We like the player, and I don’t know, we’ve never said we’re trading Kuznetsov. I said we’re open to discussions on most of our players for the trade market. And if it comes up, it comes up. Same as always. It’s never been, we are moving Kuznetsov as it’s been portrayed in a few places. That’s not exactly the case.”
Earlier in the offseason, when the rumors really began to fly, MacLellan hinted at why Kuznetsov might not be going anywhere and why we’re largely seeing the same roster take shape again.
“It’s tough to evaluate [Kuznetsov]’s year. He had COVID twice. 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. 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 are a well-run organization. They’re a talented team that is up against the salary-cap. Top-two centers are hard to come by and trading Kuznetsov for a player equally as talented that can fill his role will be all but impossible. The Capitals only have one move, to give Evgeny Kuznetsov one more chance. The difference between the 2020-2021 Capitals and the 2021-2022 Capitals needs to be the play of Kuznetsov. If ‘2018 Kuzy’ returns, the Capitals will compete for a Stanley Cup. If he doesn’t, MacLellan is right, the Capitals won’t be very good in 2021-2022.