With Alex Ovechkin free agency talks likely put to rest, the Washington Capitals’ attention shifts toward another member of the team’s current core: Evgeny Kuznetsov.
As the Expansion Draft looms with the Seattle Kraken looking to make a splash, general manager Brian MacLellan has decisions to make, and a lot of it appears to revolve around the Russian center.
“I don't think anyone is off the table,” MacLellan said, adding the only exceptions would be Ovechkin and longtime teammate Nicklas Backstrom.
Kuznetsov’s 2020-21 campaign is one that he’d like to put behind him. Not only was it plagued by bouts of inconsistency but he missed significant time after violating COVID-19 protocols and testing positive twice. He was also scratched due to “disciplinary” reasons toward the end of the year.
“It wasn’t an easy one you know... Everybody and 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 explained. “Figure out some things and then get back to work and you know, just to be in shape.”
Through 41 games, Kuznetsov put up career-low numbers of nine goals and 29 points, while also going without a point through three playoff games against Boston. His .71 points-per-game pace was the lowest it’s been since 2014-15 (.49).
“[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. I don't think he ever hit the gear or stride that he wanted to or that he wants to as a player,” Laviolette said.
Kuznetsov agreed, and also added that there were times that he didn't feel he was at 100 percent over the course of 2021, but that ultimately it was no excuse for his output, which fluctuated and reached a high point just before his second bout with coronavirus.
“Like I said, this is the life and I have never been in this situation, so I can learn from this and move forward and focus on the future,” Kuznetsov said. “The longer I am going to sit and cry about what was wrong that didn't go my way, I am stuck in the situation so I have to turn the page and I have to train hard and be ready for next year.”
Given his performance, trade talks and speculation have started to brew, but the 29-year-old isn’t fixating on it and is tuning it out. He believes he’s formed a “great relationship” with Laviolette and expects to remain with the Capitals going forward.
“I like this team. I like to be here and this organization, the team, did a lot of good things for me and I believe I done some good things also. It’s like a long marriage, right? Sometimes in family situations, [things] happen when you have to go through some tough moments... I want to be here, I want to be with these guys,” Kuznetsov said.
“All I’m worried about what people inside the team and what coaches, what they think actually and what they want me to do... I’m a nice person, I am never going to complain about anything, because I understand that if I didn’t success on the ice, that I know I have to be better and know that is how life will be.”
That being said, the expectations are high moving forward, the bar rising the moment Washington was eliminated in the first round for the third straight season. MacLellan made it clear that he’s open to trade talks and change, and that this team needs to have everyone on board to erase past disappointments and get back to Stanley Cup form.
“We need him to play at his highest ability. if he can’t, we’re not going to be a good team, and we’re going to have to make some decisions,” MacLellan said of No. 92.
With a busy offseason ahead, Kuznetsov is eager to get back to 100 percent health and stay in shape, while also making the most of his time with his wife and children, something he missed out on for a majority of the year.
“I am learning and I am getting better as person because I understand that the kids grow already and they need a father next to them and they need to feel that power from father, you know?” Kuznetsov said.
In the end, he’s is ready to prove his worth and show that he can put the past in the rearview, and his teammates have faith that they’ll see different results in 2021-22, including captain Alex Ovechkin.
“I think he’s a growing up man right now. I think he understands what we have to do... I’m pretty sure he will fight through it and he will be better next year,” Ovechkin said.