Kuznetsov WSH placed on waivers

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Evgeny Kuznetsov reported to and practiced with Hershey of the American Hockey League on Tuesday, where he was loaned by the Washington Capitals after clearing waivers Sunday.

The forward was placed on waivers Saturday with the hope of giving the 31-year-old forward a fresh start elsewhere.

“I think he’s been looking for a change in an environment, and this might set the wheels in motion for that to be accomplished,” Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said Saturday.

Kuznetsov has not played since Jan. 27 and entered the NHL/NHLPA Player Assistance Program on Feb. 5. Earlier Saturday, he was cleared to resume practicing and entered the follow-up care phase of the player assistance program.

MacLellan said the Capitals will continue to look at other options, including trading Kuznetsov before the 2024 NHL Trade Deadline, which is Friday at 3 p.m. ET.

Kuznetsov has one season remaining after this on an eight-year, $62.4 million contract ($7.8 million average annual value) he signed with Washington on July 2, 2017. MacLellan said the Capitals might be willing to retain some salary to trade Kuznetsov in the right deal.

“I think we’re open to anything that gives him an opportunity to continue his career the way he wants to continue it,” MacLellan said.

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Selected in the first round (No. 26) of the 2010 NHL Draft, Kuznetsov has 568 points (171 goals, 397 assists) in 723 regular-season games for the Capitals, including four seasons of at least 20 goals. He has 67 points (29 goals, 38 assists) in 87 Stanley Cup Playoff games, and led the postseason with 32 points (12 goals, 20 assists) to help Washington win the Stanley Cup in 2018.

But Kuznetsov has frustrated the Capitals with his inconsistency since then. After he had an NHL career-high 83 points (27 goals, 56 assists) in 79 regular-season games in 2017-18, his production has wavered. He had 78 points (24 goals, 54 assists) in 79 games in 2021-22 before dropping to 55 points (12 goals, 43 assists) in 81 games last season, when the Capitals missed the playoffs for the first time since 2014. Kuznetsov has 17 points (six goals, 11 assists) in 43 games this season and was a healthy scratch against the Arizona Coyotes on Dec. 4.

This is Kuznetsov’s second time in the player assistance program; he voluntarily entered after testing positive for cocaine while playing for Russia the 2019 IIHF World Championship and was suspended from international competition for four years. Kuznetsov was also suspended by the NHL for the first three games of the 2019-20 season for inappropriate conduct.

MacLellan didn’t rule out buying out the final season on Kuznetsov’s contract this offseason if there are no trade options. He also left the door open for Kuznetsov potentially returning to play for the Capitals if he’s able to find his game with Hershey.

“I think he's got to get some stuff in his personal life straightened out, and playing wise too,” MacLellan said. “I think he needs to find the level that he's accustomed to playing at. Going down [to Hershey], working at it or playing in another organization -- I don't know he finds it, but I think it's important for him.”

In addition to potentially trading Kuznetsov, the Capitals are exploring other options before the Deadline, but MacLellan said those decisions won’t be impacted by their place in the playoff race. Washington (28-23-9) lost 5-2 to the Arizona Coyotes on Sunday and remained six points behind the Philadelphia Flyers for third in the Metropolitan Division with two games in hand, and seven points back of the Detroit Red Wings and Tampa Bay Lightning for the wild cards into the playoffs from the Eastern Conference. The Capitals have three games in hand on the Lightning, and one on the Red Wings.

“I think we're in the mix,” MacLellan said. “I see the math that it's unlikely, but you could get some help from other teams too. We have a week left to make some decisions. I think our priority would be the future of our club. All decisions will be based on [that]. It's not, 'Hey, we're going to go out and rent a guy for the playoffs.' We're not in that game.

“We're here to look for opportunities to find more young players, add more young players to our roster and compete -- still compete.”

MacLellan was unsure if the Capitals will trade players who can become unrestricted free agents after this season, such as defenseman Joel Edmundson and forwards Anthony Mantha, Max Pacioretty and Nicolas Aube-Kubel.

“I think if something makes sense for us, if it’s a good trade and I think it’s good value or it helps our organization, we have to consider it,” he said. “But just to blindly go in and say we’re just getting rid of all these guys, we’re not going to do that.”