Capitals Mailbag Part 2: Getting through to Kuznetsov

J.J. Regan
NBC Sports Washington
Evgeny Kuznetsov has all the talent in the world. How can the Caps get his motivation to match that talent?
Evgeny Kuznetsov has all the talent in the world. How can the Caps get his motivation to match that talent?

Capitals Mailbag Part 2: Getting through to Kuznetsov originally appeared on nbcsportswashington.com

It's time for a new Capitals mailbag! You guys continue to bring great questions so there are two mailbags this week. You can read Part 1 here.

Check out Part 2 below.

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Have a Caps question you want answered in the next mailbag? Send it on Twitter using #CapsMailNBC or by email to CapitalsMailbag@gmail.com.

Please note, some questions have been edited for clarity.

Benjamin C. writes: Do you think sometime in his future career Evgeny Kuznetsov will become a team leader and a hard-working consistent player? 

Possibly, but the clock is ticking. Kuznetsov will turn 27 later in May so we are getting to the point where he should be mentally mature. If he doesn't figure it out now, then it is fair to wonder if he ever will.

Having said that, it sounds from what he said on breakdown day that he realizes he cannot simply just flip the switch on when it comes to the playoffs. One of the things he mentioned was that there was a certain complacency that sunk in because of the team's success. There was not that pressure to always perform because if he had a bad night, the team could still win. The lesson here is that may be true for some regular season games, but it is not true for the playoffs. He is too important a player to the team to not perform in the postseason and he cannot simply just turn things up once the calendar flips to April.

If we see Conn Smythe Kuznetsov next season, especially in the second half of the season as the schedule moves on toward the playoffs, then we will know it was lesson learned. But he is at an age where if there is another inconsistent season it seems doubtful the message is going to sink in.

Raymond S. writes: What do you think about moving Kuznetsov down to the 3rd line and moving Lars Eller up to the 2nd line.  On the 3rd line he would have help with his lack of defense and get his attention.

How long are we talking about? If you want to do that for a few games if he is struggling again and want to send a message, sure. If you are talking long-term or even permanently, absolutely not. At some point, you need your best players to be your best players and you need to put them in a position where they can succeed.

Kuznetsov is a top-line center. He does not always play there because of Nicklas Backstrom, but he is at the very least a top-six forward. Lars Eller, meanwhile, is a high-end third line center, low-end second. He can play on the second line when needed and play well, but the longer he does, the more you see the cracks in his game.

Kuznetsov is a superstar player, but If the team ever gets to a point where it only feels comfortable putting him in a third-line role, then it's time to trade him. You do not keep a player like that on the third line just as an ace in the hole. Either he is a superstar or you trade him to a team that still believes he can be.

Robert B. writes: Does Kuznetsov remind you of another Caps bust Alex Semin?

Let's pump the brakes here. Neither player is or was a bust. Alex Semin put together an 11-year NHL career with 239 goals and 517 points. Kuznetsov could have won the Conn Smythe last year and no one would have argued. That's not a bust.

I do get the point you are trying to make though that Semin was a player who, despite surpassing 75 points three times in his career and 40 goals once, it felt like he never reached his true potential. In that sense, sure. Because Kuznetsov is Russian and because it seems like he too is not reaching his full potential, that is the easy comparison people will make.

The main difference for me is in the playoffs. While Semin did score four game-winning goals in his career, he never felt like the series-changer that Kuznetsov has been. Kuznetsov was a breakout star against the New York Islanders and of course, there was the 12 goals, 20 assists he scored in 24 games during last year's Cup run. Semin always seemed to regress to a role player in the postseason and was never that superstar who could swing a series.

Kuznetsov may be inconsistent in the playoffs, but he at least has elevated his game to a superstar level in the past. I do not think you could ever really say that about Semin (and yes, I do know Semin scored an overtime winner against the New York Rangers, I was there).

Daniel J. writes: Lots of talk about Brett Connolly, Devante Smith-Pelly, Braden Holtby and Nicklas Backstrom extensions. With the cap room they have, how about prospects on the farm? Guys like Riley Barber, Nathan Walker, Liam O'Brien have been in the system for a while. Could one of them potentially make the jump next season should someone hit the market? Or would someone like Chandler Stephenson/Travis Boyd be get an increased role?

A lot of players to unpack here. First, Braden Holtby and Backstrom are unrestricted free agents next year. They are a topic of discussion now because they can sign extensions as early as July 1. For next year, however, they are already under contract. You do correctly identify, however, that there are several free agent forwards (Connolly, Smith-Pelly, Carl Hagelin, Andre Burakovsky, Jakub Vrana, Chandler Stephenson, Dmitrij Jaskin) and not enough money to pay them all. For every player that goes, however, the team still has to find a way to replace them. When the salary cap becomes an issue, bringing up prospects is a cheap way to fill out the roster if, and only if you have prospects that are ready to make that jump.

This is a timely question as I am writing this from Hershey, Pa. after watching Game 3 and 4 against the Charlotte Checkers. Barber has offensive upside, but he struggles to create his own space. He could potentially compete for a third-line role, but the issue is that he will be an unrestricted free agent and does not sound at all like he wants to re-sign with Washington. Walker is also a UFA, but he sounds like he would be much more open to a return. I like what I see from him and think he could be a very good fourth line player. He relentlessly battles for the puck and would be the type of player opponents would hate to play against. So long as he can be coached into not allowing himself to get drawn out of position just puck chasing, then I think he has a shot. The fourth line, however, is where I see his NHL ceiling. O'Brien is a fun player to watch, but I do not see him as an NHL player.

As for other prospects who could possibly be in line to step into an NHL role from training camp, the only one that is anywhere close to ready is Axel Jonsson-Fjallby who already has NHL speed and could be a Hagelin replacement. The fact that he spent most of the season in Sweden, however, hurts his chances. To think he will be ready to step into the North American game at the highest level by October could be a stretch.

Other players like Garrett Pilon and Shane Gersich still have work to do before they will be NHL ready.

Looking at Stephenson and Boyd, I have to see more from them. Stephenson is largely unproductive. He is fast and the team likes him as a penalty killer, but he rarely makes a noticeable impact on the game. Boyd is caught between being too skilled to fit into a traditional fourth-line role and not good enough to justify putting on the third line. I am sure the team would love for both players to earn third-line roles – that would solve a lot of problems and roster headaches – and I have no doubt they will be given every chance to earn a larger role.

Chris S. writes: It's my understanding that if you qualify one of your own restricted free agents, then you have exclusive negotiating rights to said free agent.  If so, rather than let Burakovsky go to the open market by not qualifying (and potentially losing him with no compensation), why not qualify Burakovsky at the 3.25(+) million that it takes, knowing that you than have exclusive negotiating rights to him?  Now, 3.25(+) million for Burakovsky right now is too much, but – and here's where you can clarify – the Caps can negotiate in good faith on a bridge deal at a lower number.

When a team "qualifies" a player, it means it extends him a qualifying offer. A qualifying offer is a one-year contract at a predetermined amount. In most cases, teams qualify their RFAs is a formality. The amount of the contract is either too little for the player to seriously consider or most players are hoping to negotiate a new deal for more than one year. Once you extend a qualifying offer, however, the team retains the player's negotiating rights regardless of what the player does at that point. Most do not sign their qualifying offers knowing they can negotiate a better deal with the team, but those are legitimate one-year contracts that a player could sign if they choose to.

Here's the problem with your plan: Burakovsky has an agent.

If you qualify Burakovsky, he could simply accept the one-year offer and then the Caps are stuck paying him $3.25 million for the year. That's too much for a player who has scored 12 goals in each of the past three seasons and an agent would know that and probably encourage Burakovsky to sign the deal. If Burakovsky wants more than one year, however, the second problem with your plan is that you have set the negotiating point at $3.25 million. You have told Burakovsky that you are willing to pay him that much for one year. Maybe you can get him to take slightly less for more years, but you are not going to get him to take something like, say, two years at $2 million per year. Why would he take a two-year contract worth $4 million when you offered him $3.25 million for one year?

Essentially by qualifying Burakovsky, you are guaranteeing that you are going to overpay a lot for one year, or overpay a little for two years or more. An agent is going to take the $3.25 million you officially offered and use that as a starting point to negotiate.

Thanks for all your questions! If you have a question you want to be read and answered in the next mailbag, send it in to CapitalsMailbag@gmail.com or use #CapsMailNBC on Twitter.

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