On Sunday, the Capitals signed Kuznetsov to a $62.4 million, eight-year deal and made room for the talented Russian center by trading forward Marcus Johansson to the New Jersey Devils for 2018 second- and third-round picks. The back-to-back Presidents' Trophy winners committed $7.8 million per season to Kuznetsov, $5.75 million to right winger T.J. Oshie and $5.1 million to Dmitry Orlov and had to do something.
"You can't argue with signing Orlov and Oshie and Kuznetsov,'' Devils general manager Ray Shero said. "Good teams like Washington, all teams have to do it at some point: You're making decisions and rearranging the furniture. There's a salary cap. And if there wasn't, I'm pretty sure Marcus would still be in Washington.''
Signed through 2024-25, Kuznetsov is now the second highest-paid player on the Capitals roster behind only captain Alex Ovechkin's $9.54 million cap hit and ahead of center Nicklas Backstrom's $6.7 million. The 25-year-old had 19 goals and 40 assists for 59 points last season. In 261 NHL games with the Capitals, he has 182 points on 53 goals and 129 assists, and he led the team in points in 2015-16.
"Evgeny is a premier center in the NHL, and we are pleased that he will remain in Washington for at least the next eight years,'' general manager Brian MacLellan said. "It is difficult to find a player of his caliber, who is in his prime and makes his teammates better. Evgeny plays with a tremendous skill, speed and tenacity needed to win in the NHL.''
There was no doubt the Capitals would agree to a long-term deal with Kuznetsov, even amid interest from Russia's Kontinental Hockey League in him and Orlov, who signed for $30.6 million over six years. After giving Oshie $46 million over eight years and still needing to re-sign restricted free agent forward Andre Burakovsky and goaltender Philipp Grubauer, Washington cleared roughly $4.58 million in cap space by sending Johansson to New Jersey.
The Capitals got Florida's second-rounder and Toronto's third-rounder next year after not having a pick in the first three rounds of this year's draft. The Devils get a 26-year-old Swede coming off a career-high 58-point season.
"It's a trade that obviously helps both teams,'' Shero said. "Washington with their cap and being able to trade a great player like Kuznetsov and certainly a team like ours taking advantage of that and adding a real good young player and an up-and-coming player in Marcus.''
Shero said he'd been monitoring the Capitals' salary-cap situation for some time. Washington lost in the second round for the second consecutive year, but changes were coming no matter the playoff result.
The Capitals already couldn't afford to bring back winger Justin Williams and defensemen Kevin Shattenkirk and Karl Alzner. Williams signed a $9 million, two-year deal with Carolina, Alzner a $23.125 million, five-year deal with Montreal and Shattenkirk a $26.6 million, four-year deal with the New York Rangers.
The Devils were in on Shattenkirk, but when that didn't happen, upgrading their forward depth by getting Johansson was the next step. New Jersey has missed the playoffs in each of the past five seasons, so taking advantage of a perennial contender's jam is just part of the process to try to get back in the postseason mix.
"I've been on the other end,'' said Shero, who won the Stanley Cup in 2009 as the Pittsburgh Penguins' GM. "Washington's got a real good team. I want to get there. But this is where we are.''