“We always said there’s a hole at second-line center,” General Manager Brian MacLellan said on breakdown day, after the Capitals lost to the Rangers during the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. “I think we’ve filled that hole.”
A restricted free agent this summer at 23 years old, Kuznetsov had always factored into the Capitals’ long-term plans, though enough nerves were certainly frayed the longer he lingered in Russia, playing for Chelyabinsk Traktor in the Kontinental Hockey League for four more seasons after Washington drafted him 26th overall in 2010.
Under Coach Barry Trotz, who primarily deployed him in the bottom-six last fall, later tethered him to forward Troy Brouwer on the second line and eventually unleashed him for a top-line center stint during the playoff push, Kuznetsov grew into a solid complement beneath Nicklas Backstrom down Washington’s middle. He endeared himself to Capitals fans with a humble work ethic and growing command of the English language, like his frequent use of the phrase, “It’s not my first rodeo.” And in Game 7 of the first round against the New York Islanders, Kuznetsov whipped Verizon Center into a frenzy with the game-winning goal.
MacLellan had prioritized re-signing the team’s restricted free agents this summer, and with Marcus Johansson and Braden Holtby both filing for player-elected arbitration before Sunday’s deadline, Kuznetsov wrapped up his deal not long after.
“I think we got a fair deal for the player,” his agent said Monday. “We got the deal done, and everyone’s happy.”
According to the team, Kuznetsov will earn $2.2 million in salary this season plus a $400,000 signing bonus, then $3.4 million in 2016-17. The Capitals will absorb a cap hit of $3 million both years, a substantial increase from the $900,000 cap hit his last deal carried. The team will still have approximately $10.89 million remaining for Holtby and Johansson’s respective deals. Once Holtby and Johansson get signed, presumably to multi-year extensions, Washington will have its top four defensemen, top six forwards — plus one to spare in either Johansson or Andre Burakovsky — and starting goaltender all under contract for at least the next two seasons.
Kuznetsov will be available to reporters Tuesday evening as the Capitals conclude their first day of prospect development camp. Until then, here are some tweets.
NOTE: Per the team, newly acquired forward T.J. Oshie will wear No. 77, defenseman Taylor Chorney will wear No. 4 and goaltender Dan Ellis will wear No. 39. No.4 was previously worn by defenseman John Erskine, an unrestricted free agent who is contemplating retirement after neck surgery cut short his 2014-15 season.