Will Evgeny Kuznetsov Really Stay In Russia?

Evengy Kuznetsov’s recent statement that he will be staying in the KHL next season sounds like bad news for the Washington Capitals.  The current agreement between the NHL and KHL is for both leagues to respect the other’s contracts, and Kuznetsov would not be eligible to play in the NHL next season if he played in the KHL.  The good news is that Kuznetsov has not signed a new contract yet, so his words are just words, and they may have been uttered for many reasons.  Much like Semyon Varlamov’s posturing last summer before his trade to Colorado, the promise of players leaving for more money in the KHL is a great motivator for NHL teams to pony up the cash to keep certain players or to trade them so they don’t lose them for no return.  Many teams avoid acquiring Russian players altogether, including opting to draft players surer to stay in North America.  In any event, if Kuznetsov wants to play in the NHL, it will be with Washington, as NHL teams retain the rights to European players indefinitely.

Considering the NHL has no signed collective bargaining agreement for next season, it is quite likely he could end up playing in the AHL if he signs a contract and there is a work stoppage.  While Capitals General Manager George McPhee is not opposed to returning players to their junior teams in Sweden or Canada if they are not fully developed, he has stated publicly Kuznetsov belongs in the NHL and not the KHL, where he “can develop bad habits.” McPhee didn’t release Alexander Semin from his contract in 2004, and there’s no reason to think he’d release Kuznetsov to go back to the KHL, either.  The other big factor is the issue of NHL players competing in the 2014 Sochi Olympics has not been approved.  One would think that would be alleviated by the promise made by Capitals’ owner Ted Leonsis, who said   he’d fly Ovechkin to Russia for the Olympics himself, if necessary.

Unfortunately for McPhee, his hands are tied in terms of what he can give Kuznetsov in compensation.  Under the terms of the current collective bargaining agreement, if Kuznetsov signs a contract now, he is locked into a 3-year entry-level deal.  If he waits until he’s 22, it’s only a 2-year entry-level deal, which can mean a great deal more money overall if he plays two more season in Russia earning several times his potential NHL salary guaranteed, tax-free.  NHL entry-level salary is capped at $925,000, and even with the option for a 10% signing bonus, that brings guaranteed money to just over $1 million.  With performance incentives like Alex Ovechkin had in his deal, Kuznetsov could stand to make up to $4 million if everything went right, but he would still have to pay a high tax rate, union dues, and escrow.

Read on.

Peekaboo!  Will we see you?

Even more complicating to Kuznetsov is the seismic shift in the fortunes of his NHL team this season.  When he was drafted, the Capitals had just won the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s best regular season team, they had the most goals by far of any team in the league, and they had the best powerplay, all exciting elements for an offensive-minded player.  Additionally, the most exciting player in the world was fellow Russian and newly-minted team captain Alexander Ovechkin, who was coming off  his 3rd straight 50-goal, 100-point season.  The allure of playing with Ovechkin was no small factor in GM George McPhee’s willingness to draft Russian players, and the fear of losing such players to the KHL kept Kuznetsov from being drafted earlier.  Ovi was flanked by two fellow Russians, 40-goal scorer Alexander Semin and goaltender Semyon Varlamov, not to mention young defenseman Dmitry Orlov was waiting in the wings.  Even though they were knocked out in the first round of the playoffs, the future of the Capitals looked bright.

Then life happened.  The Capitals still won the Eastern Conference regular season crown in 2011, but they had to switch to a more defensive scheme.  Ovechkin was struggling, posting career lows in goals and points.  The Capitals got swept in the second round.  Semyon Varlamov was traded in the off-season.  Meanwhile, Kuznetsov had just posted an excellent season in the KHL and was more than happy to keep it up.  It is highly unusual for players to make the NHL right out of the draft under George McPhee.  Since he took over in 1998, only three players, and only two 18-year olds, have ever made the team right out of the draft.  None of the three played more than 17 games in the NHL that season before spending the rest of the season in a lower league.  No player has made the jump right to the NHL with the Capitals since 2002.  In fact, it is not uncommon for European players to make their NHL debuts at 22, much like Peter Bondra and Teemu Selanne did.

Kuznetsov would certainly not be the first player to use the KHL as a bargaining chip to get more money or to stall his entry to the NHL until he knew more about what to expect from the team.  McPhee knows all too well what can happen.  Alexander Semin was the Capitals’ first round pick in 2002, 13th overall.  Per the Capitals’ usual plan, Semin spent the next season in Russia, making his debut in the KHL with Lada Togliatti.  He made the Capitals out of training camp in the fall of 2003 at the tender age of 19 on a 3-year entry level contract.  On paper, Semin had a fairly normal rookie season, appearing in 52 games, posting a respectable 10 goals and 22 points in limited ice time.  He spent 16 games as a healthy scratch, and the other 14 of the 30 games Semin did not play were spent with the Russian World Junior Team.  The team assigned him to Portland of the AHL for the end of their regular season and playoffs.  With the exception of making the team out of training camp, this is almost exactly what the Capitals did with John Carlson in 2009-10, so on the surface, this is a fairly normal path to the NHL for such a highly talented player.

Unfortunately for the baby-faced Semin, he got to see the implosion of that 2003-04 Capitals team first-hand.  The highly-talented and veteran-laden Capitals entered that season as potential Cup contenders after an early playoff exit the previous spring.  The team was doomed almost from the moment they took to the ice for training camp; a freak accident left #2 center Michael Nylander with a broken leg and cost him the first 60 games of the season.  The Capitals started the season 1-1-1 and lost their next 6, with Semin only dressing for 3 of those first 9 games.  After a knee-jerk trade of the team captain just 6 games into the season, the Capitals GM fired the coach 19 games later and proceeded to dismantle the team as they collapsed.  It must have been very disheartening for a young player to join a team with great players he idolized growing up like Jaromir Jagr, Peter Bondra, Sergei Gonchar, and Robert Lang, with the expectation of trying to make a deep playoff run, only to finish the season in last place with all of those players traded away.  All of those trades left the Capitals with just one European-born player on the team, Lithuanian-born and Russian-speaking winger Dainius Zubrus.  It did not help that Zubrus’s injuries cost him 28 games, including every game after March 13, leaving Semin isolated in the locker room amid a slew of new and revolving teammates.  The only other European players Semin had contact with at the end of the season were a quartet of Slovaks who split time between the Capitals and Pirates, none of whom returned to the organization the next season.

Even with the coaching change, it didn’t really matter which coach it was, Semin was routinely punished for mistakes by both of them.  His ice time would dip dramatically before he would sit out games.  The most aggravating of these instances must have been the last two games of the regular season, when the team was made up a patchwork of minor-league call-ups and spare parts, Semin played just 4 minutes in the penultimate game and was scratched for the season finale.  At the point he was dispatched from cosmopolitan Washington, DC, to the minor league team in Portland, Maine, 320 miles from the nearest Russian consulate.

It was certainly not what Semin had in mind, and the disillusioned 20-year old jumped at the opportunity to return to Russia during the NHL lockout.  He was still under contract with the Capitals, and with no NHL hockey to come in the fall, they had assigned him to the AHL Portland Pirates in September.  The team suspended him for refusing to report, but ultimately Semin playing another season in Russia with no NHL was not a major cause for concern.  It was when Semin didn’t return to the NHL for the 2005-06 season that the Capitals had an issue.  Claiming a military commitment, Semin played that season in Russia, too.

While Semin had every right to not want to play for the struggling Capitals in 2005-06, it was also economics that kept him out of the NHL in 2005-06.  He was paid $2 million tax-free by his KHL club, plus he was provided a car and an apartment.  If he had played in the NHL, he would have made just under $1.2 million before taxes if he reached his incentives.

Because McPhee suspended Semin for two seasons, he was eligible to terminate his entry-level contract at the conclusion of 2005-06, paving the way for Semin to make a larger salary in 2006-07.  While the emergence of Alexander Ovechkin and the improvement of the team were no small factors in Semin’s decision to return, the money was better, too.  Semin earned $1.4 million in 2006-07 and $1.2 million in 2007-08, more than he would have gotten on his entry-level deal if McPhee had insisted on applying it, which is what the Predators are doing with Alexander Radulov.

Unfortunately, as it stands now, Alexander Ovechkin is still struggling, but he is under contract with the team for the next decade.  Dmitry Orlov has been promoted and appears set to stay in D.C. for at least that long. On the other hand, Alexander Semin is struggling and is a free agent at the end of the season.  The team is no sure bet to make the playoffs, and the new coach, Dale Hunter, does not appear to favor offense like the old coach did.  It’s not looking like Kuznetsov is any closer to wanting to come to DC than Semin was in 2005.

If the fortunes of the team were the primary reason for Kuznetsov to balk at coming to the NHL, those reasons will vanish quickly.  Many of the team’s struggles can be attributed to a variety of new variables, many of which have been addressed recently.  All the new faces in the dressing room added over the summer have had time to acclimate to their surroundings and teammates.  The new coach is much more prone to addressing players’ bad habits immediately and is not afraid to scratch or bench players to get the message across, which is something new.  This has led to an increase in accountability, which coupled with time to adjust to the new system, has the Capitals playing sound hockey for the first time in a while.  Now that the players have picked up the new system, they are finding out that Dale Hunter, who scored over 300 goals and 1,000 points in his NHL career, likes offense as much as anyone on the team.  Hunter differs from Boudreau in that he values hard work and a solid foundation of defense above all, not unexpected traits from a farmer.  The other variables under control or soon to be are the injuries to key players, namely to All-Star center Nicklas Backstrom and All-Star defenseman Mike Green, who are as important as anyone to the team’s success.  The Capitals are likely to get Backstrom back before the playoffs, Green is healthy and set to return from a suspension, and the Capitals are poised to re-take the division lead from the Florida Panthers, giving them home ice in the playoffs.

What Kuznetsov will see from the team over the next few weeks, hopefully months, could easily change his mind, if it were solely up to him.  Ultimately it isn’t solely up to him.  It is no small obstacle for any teenager to want to travel halfway around the world to a foreign country where they speak a foreign language, but it is an even bigger obstacle for a married teenager.  As many folks remember from the Chris Pronger and Michael Nylander sagas in 2006 and 2007, hockey wives can have a huge influence on where their husbands play hockey.   If Mrs. Kuznetsova is leaning toward staying in Russia a little while longer, especially with the talk of a little Evgenya or four, big Evgeny will be in Russia for a little while longer.

Evgeny and Anastasia
Photo via: sashastolemyheart

Only time will tell what happens.  As recently as December, Kuznetsov was excited about joining the Capitals.  It is also possible Evgeny may end up not liking the contract offers he gets from the other KHL teams.  No small consideration can be given to NHL being the best league in the world, and only in part because of the amount of talent.  Safety comes first in the NHL, and after Kuznetsov’s recent scare with his knee injury coupled with him starting a family, that may ring loudly in his ears.  The KHL’s safety record is a travesty, and not just because of the fiery deaths of the Lokomtiv hockey team in a plane crash last summer because of the team owners skimping on their travel budget.  The incident involving the sudden death of Alexei Cherepanov because of the lack of emergency equipment or personnel at the arena could scare many away, especially in contrast to the immediate, life-saving treatment Chris Pronger and Jiri Fischer got when they had heart ailments during NHL games.  Even for less than life-threatening injuries, the treatment of Martin Kariya would be scary too; after suffering a major concussion and neck injury, he was taken off the ice on a tarp with his neck unsupported because no stretcher was available at the arena, making his injury worse.  There are also the fringe benefits of the league.  In the NHL, players are treated like royalty, staying in 5-star hotels and flying charter.  Evgeny will also have Russians on his team and he’ll certainly have Mrs. Ovechkin looking out for him and making home-cooked meals.  He could do a lot worse, even if he doesn’t make quite as much money.

Ultimately, Evgeny Kuznetsov will make up his own mind about what he wants to do.  It does not appear as though he’ll be in Washington next season, but he could well turn up in another year or two.  He is eager to join the Capitals, but he understands there is no need to rush things.  He is happy and comfortable in Russia, but his ultimate goal is to play in the NHL and to play for 20 seasons, so there is no worry that he won’t want to prove himself against the best and play in the NHL one day.