A busy offseason is at hand for the Washington Capitals. It’s been three years since Alex Ovechkin and some of the Caps went wet and wild at Georgetown Waterfront after delivering the first — and so far only — Stanley Cup title for the nation’s capital. What followed was three straight seasons of playoff exits in the first round. With a chance to shore up the roster, Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan could be scanning a piece of paper with the team’s roster written on it right now, probing the names with his fingers, and stopping at one intriguing asset: Evgeny Kuznetsov. `

The Russian sniper was an integral part of the Caps that won the Stanley Cup in 2018, but he’s been letting his team down on and off the ice ever since. He tested twice for COVID-19 during the 2020-21 NHL season, which he could have avoided if he followed the league’s and his team’s safety protocols. Prior to that, he was suspended for three games in the 2019 season after getting busted for cocaine use. Eating dumplings from the Stanley Cup was one thing, but taking illegal drugs was simply an unacceptable form of post-championship celebration (or any celebration) that Kuznetsov dared make.

Evgeny Kuznetsov’s production suffered as a result of all those missed games. In the 2020-21 season, Kuznetsov played just 41 games and posted nine goals and 20 assists. He also went scoreless in three playoff games against the Boston Bruins with a plus/minus of -1 in totality in those contests. 

Kuznetsov had already said he wants to remain a Capital for the next season, but there’s more than a hint of disconnect between him and the team’s management.  His current contract is guaranteed until the end of the 2024-25 NHL season with a cap hit of $7.8 million. A change of scenery and a fresh start somewhere else could benefit Kuznetsov — and the Caps, as that would unload all the baggage between the two sides. 

With all that being said, here are two teams the Capitals can engineer a trade built around Evgeny Kuznetsov.

2. Columbus Blue Jackets

THE TRADE: Alexandre Texier + 2021 first-round pick, 2022 second-round pick

The Blue Jackets have a long list of items they have to accomplish this offseason. Finding a high-ceiling center is among those boxes Columbus needs to check off. Trading away No. 1 center Pierre-Luc Dubois to the Winnipeg Jets started off a lengthy struggle for the Blue Jackets to find stability in the position. 

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Max Domi scored just nine goals and made 15 assists in the 2020-21 season while posting sub-par figures of 46.55 CF%, 40.53 GF%, and 45.27 xGF%. And that’s Columbus’ top center, by the way. Evgeny Kuznetsov could easily get the center position in the top line if he gets traded today to the Blue Jackets, and he could be that guy for many years to come. Columbus does not have a center under team control beyond 2023. Domi will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2022-23 season, while Jack Roslovic and Kevin Stenlund will be restricted free agents by the time. With Kuznetsov, the Blue Jackets will have one major asset locked up long term.

As for the Caps’ return, Washington can ask for 21-year-old center Alexandre Texier, who scored four goals to go with 11 assists last season, or 20-year-old Yegor Chinakhov, who’s yet to play in the NHL after getting drafted 21st overall in 2020 by Columbus plus of the Blue Jackets’ three picks in the first round of the 2021 NHL Draft and a second-rounder in 2022.

1. Montreal Canadiens

THE TRADE: Capitals send Evgeny Kuznetsov to Canadiens for 2021 first -round pick + Jesperi Kotkaniemi

The Canadiens are still fresh off a brutal loss in the 2021 Stanley Cup Finals at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Habs pulled off incredible upsets against high-scoring teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Vegas Golden Knights primarily because of their defense, special teams, and Carey Price’s brilliance between the pipes. None of those mattered in the Finals against Tampa Bay, an equally sound defensive team with an offense that’s seemingly galaxies apart from that of the Canadiens’. 

If the Canadiens were to sustain their momentum from this surprising deep playoff run, they need to add scoring punch, especially to their top lines. Evgeny Kuznetsov could fit right away in that context, as he’ll immediately become a primary offensive option. Montreal was seventh in the 2020-21 regular season with 31.2 shots for per game and 10th with a 52.93 xGF%  but was just 17th with 2.82 goals for per contest  Phillip Danault and Eric Staal are expiring contracts, thus making it also a more urgent need for Montreal to seek center help, especially if both players walk away. 

Unloading the Evgeny Kuznetsov contract plus getting a draft pick and at least the negotiation rights to Kotkaniemi will be beneficial for the future of the Caps past the Ovi era. At the same time, the money saved could open up bigger financial legroom for a Capitals’ extension offer for Ovechkin this summer.