Russians are welcome in Washington, a fact unrelated to the White House’s degree of hospitality.
Alex Ovechkin has made the District of Columbia his playground for a dozen seasons. He has had plenty of company.
Current Russian teammates are Evgeny Kuznetsov and Dmitry Orlov. Like Ovechkin, they are among the better players at their respective positions of playmaking center and two-way defenseman. Other Russians who performed well alongside Ovechkin for the Capitals include Alexander Semin, Semyon Varlamov, Sergei Fedorov, and Viktor Kozlov.
Other franchises have been wary of investing in Russian players because of the KHL’s appeal. There is risk in using draft capital on Russian prospects who would prefer to stay home.
But Washington’s decision to invest in Russians, started by former general manager George McPhee and extended by Brian MacLellan, has served the organization well. It is a similar story in Tampa Bay, where Nikita Kucherov, Andrei Vasilevskiy, and Vladislav Namestnikov are three of the Lightning’s chain-pullers.
It is ironic, then, that the Russian factor is playing a part in the Capitals’ projected tumble back toward their Eastern Conference chasers. Had Kuznetsov owned a different passport, MacLellan may not have had to move top-six wing Marcus Johansson to New Jersey for second- and third-round picks in 2018.
But because of his nationality, Kuznetsov held all the cards in his negotiations with the Capitals, free to dictate the eight-year, $62.4 million blockbuster he signed on July 2.
“We went a little above where we thought we were going to be,” MacLellan acknowledged in a conference call following the signing, “initially because of the situation Kuznetsov was in — his ability to go play in Russia for two years, earn as much money or more than he was making here, then come back as a UFA. He had the leverage. We lost our arbitration leverage with his ability to do that. We had to comply with his demands. If you look at it in the total scope, I think he’s going to be a top-end center in the league. Next year and going forward, it’s going to be a good contract.”
Kuznetsov is an excellent player. The left-shot pivot plays with pace, skill, and creativity. Not many teams can defend Washington’s 1-2 center punch of Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom. The 25-year-old is thick in the sweet spot of his career.
But as a restricted free agent, Kuznetsov was in an uncomfortable position. He was coming off a down year: 19 goals and 40 assists for 59 points, off the 77-point career threshold he set in 2015-16. The Capitals could have made a good case in arbitration, where the best Kuznetsov could have scored was a two-year term, for an annual average value below the sum he scored.
But had MacLellan even threatened to take the center to arbitration, Kuznetsov would have walked. The call of Russia — going home, playing for good money, being eligible to participate in the Olympics when his fellow NHLers are not, perhaps returning to North America to dictate his landing spot — would have been easy for Kuznetsov to answer. Last September, when Kucherov was still without a contract from the Lightning, Kuznetsov said he would not have been as patient.
“If I would be in [Kucherov’s] position, I would be signed in the KHL for sure . . . I would sign and say bye,” Kuznetsov told ESPN. “That’s me. I would buy a beach house and a couple Rolls-Royces.”
It wasn’t exactly kompromat, but Kuznetsov held the upper hand over the Capitals. So Kuznetsov, as was his right, put the screws to the Capitals. They had no interest in watching one of their best assets go for nothing. They paid a high price in more ways than one.
Kuznetsov’s generous contract did not help the Capitals’ cap situation. Washington was already committed to letting Karl Alzner, Kevin Shattenkirk, Justin Williams, and Daniel Winnik go via free agency. They lost late-blooming defenseman Nate Schmidt to expansion.
All of the departures were not enough. MacLellan had to part with Johansson, who was coming off a career-high 58 points, because of his salary: $4,583,333 annually through 2019, according to CapFriendly.com. It was a straight salary dump. MacLellan could not afford to take back an NHL player because of cap concerns.
“I like Marcus,” MacLellan said. “He’s a good player. He’s done a great job here. He’s a second-line left winger and a real good power-play guy. But he was making the money we needed to shed to sign Kuznetsov. The decision at the end was, ‘Do we let Kuznetsov walk to Russia and be a UFA in two years? Or trade Marcus?’ The priority was to have the best center ice we could have and do our best to fill in with the left-wing spot.”
One reason for the Capitals’ back-to-back Presidents’ Trophies was their depth. Kuznetsov, Johansson, and Andre Burakovsky could have been first-liners elsewhere. Brett Connolly was given plenty of shifts as a No. 1 right wing in Boston. The strength of their roster, however, allowed Barry Trotz to slot some of his players lower in his lineup.
The Capitals’ current salary commitments will not allow Trotz such luxuries in 2017-18. Connolly, sometimes a healthy scratch last year, might have to play on the second line. Former Bruins prospect Wayne Simpson, a career minor leaguer, could see NHL time.
“I’m bothered by it. It hurts,” MacLellan said. “We spent three years trying to get that lineup we had last year. I think it was a complete lineup. We knew this point was coming in time where we weren’t going to be able to keep everybody. We were going to lose people we really liked.”
Pittsburgh and Chicago have experienced the consequences of success. Marc-Andre Fleury, Nick Bonino, Chris Kunitz, Trevor Daley , Ron Hainsey, Artemi Panarin, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Marcus Kruger, Scott Darling, and Trevor van Riemsdyk are some of the ex-Penguins and Blackhawks who changed addresses partly because of cap concerns.
But their former employers have Stanley Cups as keepsakes. The Capitals do not.
THE BIG PICTURE
Canadiens facing questions aplenty
By 2026, when they enter the final years of their respective contracts, Shea Weber and Carey Price will be using canes instead of sticks. Weber will be 41. Price will be 38. Following Price’s eight-year, $84 million extension, the two British Columbia stalwarts will combine to occupy $18,357,143 of the Canadiens’ cap space. Of course, it is a fool’s errand to estimate the cap ceiling that year, just as meaningless as it is to project how well Weber and Price will be playing — if they’re even in uniform.
Montreal GM Marc Bergevin, however, is not concerning himself with matters nine years in the future. Not many in his position practice such long-term thinking. They are content with kicking the can down the road and leaving their successor to deal with the consequences.
San Jose’s Doug Wilson was thinking the same thing when he signed Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Martin Jones to their respective eight- and six-year extensions. When Vlasic celebrates his 39th birthday in the final year of his deal, Wilson will be in his 23rd season at the Sharks’ helm — a run that would be remarkable and unlikely.
The thing about the Canadiens, though, is how their short-term future is just as uncertain as the day when their stars will be relaxing in their rocking chairs. In 2017-18, Price will be his usual difference-making self. Weber will be more limited in how he touches the game than P.K. Subban, but his defensive-zone presence will remain frightening. Jonathan Drouin, brought back to Quebec from Tampa Bay for Mikhail Sergachev, could become one of his home province’s most electric players. Karl Alzner’s long-term game raises red flags, but the ex-Capital should be dependable in the early segment of his contract.
Claude Julien doesn’t have much clarity beyond that. The ex-Bruins coach is down a top-line right wing following Alexander Radulov’s Dallas departure. Andrei Markov is gone, as the 38-year-old has placed his 36-point 2016-17 season on the open market rather than returning to the only organization he’s known. Alexei Emelin landed in Nashville via Las Vegas following the expansion draft. Short-term Canadien Nikita Nesterov marks the fourth Russian to leave Montreal, cut loose after not being qualified.
Julien, who once had three good centers on his bench among Patrice Bergeron, Marc Savard, and David Krejci, is still without a go-to pivot. Montreal’s search for a center has been the Canadiens’ version of the Flyers’ perpetual goalie hunt.
It’s possible that Alex Galchenyuk, re-upped for three years at $4.9 million annually, could convince Julien he is trustworthy in the middle. Outside of the defensive zone, Drouin acts like a center because of his skill with the puck. But the center matchups that Julien enjoyed in Boston with Bergeron and Krejci will not be available, not when 34-year-old Tomas Plekanec (10-18—28 in 2016-17) and Phillip Danault are his two most dependable options.
Price is good enough to bank points the Canadiens don’t deserve. Max Pacioretty and Brendan Gallagher are top-six fixtures. Whether that will be enough to paper over Montreal’s shortcomings remains to be seen.
Recchi ready for life behind bench
Mark Recchi was a recent nominee for the Hockey Hall of Fame, partly because he dressed for 1,652 regular-season games and 189 playoff appearances. Such longevity provided Recchi with bonds afforded to few players.
Recchi has been linemates with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. They are now among his charges following Pittsburgh’s hiring of the ex-Bruin as assistant coach on Tuesday. Recchi has also played with Kris Letang, Phil Kessel, and Sergei Gonchar — the latter now being one of his coaching colleagues.
In Tampa, Recchi played for current Penguins boss Mike Sullivan. At the time, Sullivan was assistant to Rick Tocchet. Recchi is replacing Tocchet, who was hired by Arizona on Tuesday.
“He’ll be a most seamless fit for our staff and our team,” Sullivan said during a conference call. “Rex is a guy that our players have familiarity with. He played with some of the guys on our team. He’s coached a lot of guys on our team. He has relationships with players like Sid, Geno, Phil, and Letang. We think he’s going to be a natural.”
It is a career shift for Recchi, formerly Pittsburgh’s director of player development.
Recchi has previously shown interest in management. He remains a part owner of the WHL’s Kamloops Blazers. Even when he was playing, Recchi monitored careers of players 25 years younger in aims of improving his team.
Now Recchi will be entering the grind of coaching. The Penguins are betting his knowledge and personality will suit him well for the position. While in uniform, Recchi was keen on serving as a mentor to his teammates. In 2011, Recchi helped linemates Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand keep their nerves before Game 7 in Vancouver. In 2009, Kessel could not help but notice that Recchi gutted out a kidney stone in the playoffs.
When Sullivan cracks the whip, Recchi will be quick to put his arm around players.
“I’ve kind of always been a guy who’s been able to help facilitate things,” Recchi said, “and keep things going well in the locker room.”
Devils still lurking
New Jersey GM Ray Shero was in good position to use his assets (draft picks and cap space) to land excellent value in Marcus Johansson from Washington. The ex-Capital will be a good No. 2 left wing behind Taylor Hall and a valuable power-play weapon. The Devils are down two picks, but still have plenty of space to chase similar deals if they appear. The Predators, for example, are undergoing the tricky task of re-signing restricted free agents. Ryan Johansen, in particular, will be a big-ticket item. Viktor Arvidsson and Pontus Aberg showed in the playoffs that they deserve raises. So if Nashville GM David Poile gets too close to the ceiling, Shero, his former assistant, would be more than willing to help by taking salary off his ex-boss’s books.
Value contract for Faksa
Radek Faksa scored a solid second deal with Dallas upon the expiration of his entry-level deal: $2.2 million annually for the next three years. It’s not a long-term extension, but it’s not exactly a bridge deal either. Faksa has just one full season on his resume, but it was good: 12 goals, 21 assists, 16:10 of ice time per game. The 23-year-old left-shot center will quickly become a Ken Hitchcock favorite. Faksa kills penalties (1:57 per game), takes faceoffs (team-high 1,222 last year), and throws checks (101 credited hits, fourth-most on the team). Faksa’s play without the puck will improve in Hitchcock’s system. His skill level will lead to better performance in the offensive zone.
Schneider turnaround critical
The Devils are entering the third season of their rebuild, a project that shows no pending conclusion. The team’s best bet at claiming points is through goaltending, which oddly went awry in 2016-17. Cory Schneider has been one of the league’s most consistent puckstoppers. But the Marblehead native posted a career-low .908 save percentage over 60 appearances. It may have been a short-term blip following four straight seasons of ace work. The Devils are not taking any chances, having hired Roland Melanson, Schneider’s former goalie coach in Vancouver, to work with his former pupil. Under Melanson, Schneider started the transition of playing deeper in his crease. It’s hard for goalies to practice such patience when playing behind weaker rosters.
Goalies move, so do coaches
The goalie transfer market was like a game of musical chairs. Consider the goalies involved in movement: Brian Elliott (Calgary to Philadelphia), Steve Mason (Philadelphia to Winnipeg), Ondrej Pavelec (Winnipeg to the Rangers), Antti Raanta (Rangers to Arizona), Ryan Miller (Vancouver to Anaheim), Jonathan Bernier (Anaheim to Colorado), Antti Niemi (Dallas to Pittsburgh), Marc-Andre Fleury (Pittsburgh to Vegas), Chad Johnson (Calgary to Buffalo), and Darcy Kuemper (Minnesota to Los Angeles). Goaltending coaches also moved around, with the biggest name being Cup winner Mike Bales (Pittsburgh to Carolina). Others include Melanson (Vancouver to New Jersey), David Alexander (Syracuse to St. Louis), Jussi Parkkila (Austria to Colorado), Scott Murray (Hershey to Washington), and Fred Brathwaite (Hockey Canada to the Islanders),
Tyler Johnson and the Lightning both got what they wanted with the seven-year, $35 million extension the center signed on Monday. Johnson scores the security of term, which is a comforting thing for an undrafted player. Tampa enjoys an affordable $5 million annual payday, leaving room to re-sign Ondrej Palat. The concern, of course, is health. The 5-foot-8, 183-pound Johnson played 66 games last year. He missed 13 games the previous season . . . Jimmy Hayes remains out of work after being paid to leave his hometown team. The 27-year-old could be in line for a revival in Las Vegas. Hayes scored a career-high 19 goals in 2014-15 in Florida for Gerard Gallant, now the Golden Knights’ coach. Ex-Panthers Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault are already in place in the desert . . . Best wishes to old friend Andrew Ference, officially retired as of Thursday. Ference has been busy aboard his bike for both training and charity purposes. Here’s to smooth roads, hard climbs, and safe descents . . . The nurses at Tufts Medical Center are locked out following a one-day strike. During a stroll on Thursday, I thought I spotted an NHLPA return address on a complimentary box of coffee. If anybody knows lockouts, it’s hockey players.
Well worth it
Reigning NHL MVP Connor McDavid recently signed an eight-year contract extension with the Oilers, a pact that starts in the 2018-19 season and will give him the league’s top annual salary at $12.5 million. McDavid will play the coming season under the final year of his rookie deal, with a base salary of just $925,000. Committing long term to McDavid was a total no-brainer. Over his first two NHL campaigns, he’s one of just five players to average at least 1 point per game, and he did it while just 19 and 20 years old, eight years younger than the only player with a higher PPG average since the start of the 2015-16 season, Chicago’s Patrick Kane.
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.