After a second down season in three years and another summer of trade rumors, Kuznetsov returning never seemed like a sure thing. Now that he's back at training camp and nothing has changed with his status, the talented if inconsistent Russian center insists he is happy to stay in Washington. He thinks a new coach will help him bounce back.
"I'm actually in a good spot mentally," Kuznetsov said Thursday after the first on-ice session of camp. "There is a fresh start for whole team, and I'm focusing every day on my personal goals. I want to help the team. I want to make people happy. I want this team to succeed."
For the Capitals to succeed, Kuznetsov almost certainly must produce more than the 55 points he did last season, even as he, general manager Brian MacLellan and captain Alex Ovechkin pointed to an injury that hampered him in the spring. At a salary cap hit of $7.8 million that's fourth-highest on the roster, Kuznetsov is a crucial player; he was the leading scorer on the 2018 Stanley Cup run and Washington missed the playoffs last season when he wasn't on top of his game.
"We need him," MacLellan said. "We need him to be competitive. And for our team to be competitive, we need him to be playing at his top level, so, we'll see where he's at."
Kuznetsov declined to say whether he directly asked for a trade during the offseason, something MacLellan wouldn't get into, either. Kuznetsov said the situation was "complicated."
Perhaps each side would have benefitted from a change of scenery, though the Capitals were not going to give Kuznetsov away for nothing or take a worse contract back in return. After a largely quiet period on the trade front around the NHL, nothing materialized and everyone involved seems content to move on.
Ovechkin called Kuznetsov a big part of the team and said, "I'm sure he's going to prove himself from last year."
One reason to expect that is first-time head coach Spencer Carbery, who MacLellan said has spoken a few times to Kuznetsov about his situation. Kuznetsov said the conversations with Carbery were "honest" and figures this will be something of a new beginning after the departure of Peter Laviolette.
"The way he sees hockey, it's perfect match for me and a perfect match for guys inside the team," Kuznetsov said of Carbery. "I'm looking for that, for sure: that coach that's gonna ask to create more, to ask to score some goals, to ask to hold on to that puck, to ask to skate with that puck."
Kuznetsov has the potential to be a difference-maker. As recently as the 2021-22 season -- the last time his name was bandied about in trade talk -- he was nearly a point-a-game player with 24 goals and 54 assists.
Now 31 and with two years left on the $62.4 million contract he signed in 2017, Kuznetsov will try to get back to that level or beyond.
"I want the people to be happy with the way I play, the way I can play," he said. "I know I'm one of those pieces that has to be on point every night."