The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As Evgeny Kuznetsov’s tough year closes, speculation on his future begins

This week Evgeny Kuznetsov shot down a report that he had requested a trade. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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Once the Washington Capitals finished practice Monday, a few veterans returned to the locker room to get dressed in their red game uniforms. Among them was center Evgeny Kuznetsov, who was due back on the ice to be photographed for team marketing. It was odd timing: Just two days earlier, a Russian television outlet reported that Kuznetsov had requested a trade, fueling speculation that both parties could be headed for a divorce after a tumultuous season.

After he returned from his photo shoot Monday, Kuznetsov could not say with absolute certainty that he would still be around this summer to see the release of the promotional materials he had just helped create. While he quickly shot down the trade report — “There’s nothing to comment on,” he said — he also declared that he wanted to remain with the only NHL franchise he has ever played for, even though it remains unclear whether that feeling is mutual.

“I’m happy here. I like the guys. I like everything,” he said. “But you never know. It’s not always on me. I’m always accepting things. I live in reality. I don’t live somewhere else. I don’t blame people, and I’m always trying to work on myself.”

It has been another difficult season for Kuznetsov — for every moment of brilliance, there are stretches when the 30-year-old struggles to live up to his potential.

After Kuznetsov enjoyed a revival with 78 points last season, his offensive production has dipped; in 73 games, he has scored 12 goals, which is seventh on the team, though his 41 assists rank first. His shooting percentage, which sat at a combined 12.7 percent the previous five seasons, has fallen to a career-low 7.5 percent. And his defensive play has been heavily scrutinized — Kuznetsov’s minus-19 rating is the worst on the team.

To complicate matters, the report that Kuznetsov had requested a trade came in the hours before the Capitals took the ice for Saturday’s 4-3 loss at the Pittsburgh Penguins.

“I have not seen anything that has come out. Kuzy is a part of our team. He’s an important piece. We need him to win a game coming up here,” Capitals Coach Peter Laviolette said. “I think anything comes through that goes through management; it doesn’t really come through me. He’s one of 20 or 22 or 23 players that we deal with in there. And over the course of a season, with all of them, there’s good moments and there’s moments where you chat and you want things to be better.”

To trade Kuznetsov would be a complicated endeavor; he’ll turn 31 in May and has two years remaining on a contract worth $7.8 million annually. Not only would Washington have to find a trade partner willing to take on at least some of that money and return fair value for a player who has been inconsistent this season, but the Capitals would also have to navigate the 10-team no-trade list included in Kuznetsov’s contract.

After trading five veterans at the deadline, General Manager Brian MacLellan made it clear the team was not done in reshaping the roster on the fly before this offseason — but now it must weigh whether Kuznetsov can rediscover the production that had made him a centerpiece of the team’s Stanley Cup title in 2018 and earned him a lucrative contract.

This is not new territory for Kuznetsov; he dealt with it after the 2021 season when MacLellan said the team was open to discussions on a trade but later clarified that the team was not actively shopping him. When the recent rumors began circulating, Kuznetsov brushed them off.

“You know how it is. It’s just people trying to … get the likes on Instagram and Twitter or whatever. I talked to those people, like, where did this come from?” he said. “It’s something that we can talk about later, but at this point there is nothing to even talk about.”

It was nonetheless stressful to have it hang over his head as he prepared for Washington’s game against Pittsburgh. On Friday night, Kuznetsov had dinner at the home of Penguins star and countryman Evgeni Malkin; the following night, when Malkin scored the game-winning goal with 80 seconds left, Kuznetsov called it “probably the biggest goal I have ever given up.”

It ended a painful week — one that began with an upper-body injury suffered from a blind-side hit in a loss to the Minnesota Wild. Between that and the crushing setback in Pittsburgh, which put the Capitals’ playoff prospects in dire jeopardy, Kuznetsov was also living in the reality that his future in Washington may be in question.

“There are some areas that just didn’t go well this year. But there are some other areas that are good,” he said. “I’m pretty sure I have a bright future in front of me. But I have no doubt that I will come back even stronger.”