Evengy Kuznetsov’s recent statement that he will be staying in the KHL next season sounds like bad news for the Washington Capitals. The current agreement between the NHL and KHL is for both leagues to respect the other’s contracts, and Kuznetsov would not be eligible to play in the NHL next season if he played in the KHL. The good news is that Kuznetsov has not signed a new contract yet, so his words are just words, and they may have been uttered for many reasons. Much like Semyon Varlamov’s posturing last summer before his trade to Colorado, the promise of players leaving for more money in the KHL is a great motivator for NHL teams to pony up the cash to keep certain players or to trade them so they don’t lose them for no return. Many teams avoid acquiring Russian players altogether, including opting to draft players surer to stay in North America. In any event, if Kuznetsov wants to play in the NHL, it will be with Washington, as NHL teams retain the rights to European players indefinitely.
Considering the NHL has no signed collective bargaining agreement for next season, it is quite likely he could end up playing in the AHL if he signs a contract and there is a work stoppage. While Capitals General Manager George McPhee is not opposed to returning players to their junior teams in Sweden or Canada if they are not fully developed, he has stated publicly Kuznetsov belongs in the NHL and not the KHL, where he "can develop bad habits.” McPhee didn’t release Alexander Semin from his contract in 2004, and there’s no reason to think he’d release Kuznetsov to go back to the KHL, either. The other big factor is the issue of NHL players competing in the 2014 Sochi Olympics has not been approved. One would think that would be alleviated by the promise made by Capitals’ owner Ted Leonsis, who said he’d fly Ovechkin to Russia for the Olympics himself, if necessary.
Unfortunately for McPhee, his hands are tied in terms of what he can give Kuznetsov in compensation. Under the terms of the current collective bargaining agreement, if Kuznetsov signs a contract now, he is locked into a 3-year entry-level deal. If he waits until he’s 22, it’s only a 2-year entry-level deal, which can mean a great deal more money overall if he plays two more season in Russia earning several times his potential NHL salary guaranteed, tax-free. NHL entry-level salary is capped at $925,000, and even with the option for a 10% signing bonus, that brings guaranteed money to just over $1 million. With performance incentives like Alex Ovechkin had in his deal, Kuznetsov could stand to make up to $4 million if everything went right, but he would still have to pay a high tax rate, union dues, and escrow.
Peekaboo! Will we see you?