Capitals put Evgeny Kuznetsov on waivers after he was cleared to practice again

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ARLINGTON, Va. — The Washington Capitals put Evgeny Kuznetsov on waivers on Saturday, a surprising move that came hours after the mercurial center was cleared by the NHL/NHLPA player assistance program to resume practicing.

Kuznetsov spent the past month receiving care in the program. General manager Brian MacLellan said waiving the 31-year-old Russian is a means to an end to give Kuznetsov the change of scenery he’s been wanting.

“It’s about a fresh start for Kuzy,” MacLellan said. “He’s been looking for a change in an environment, and I think this might set the wheels in motion for that to be accomplished.”

With one year left on his contract and $8 million owed to him, Kuznetsov would seem unlikely to be claimed by another team. MacLellan expects Kuznetsov to be assigned to Hershey of the American Hockey League if he clears at 2 p.m. EST Sunday.

It’s unclear if Kuznetsov would report. A message sent to his agent seeking comment was not immediately returned.

No matter what, the next game Kuznetsov plays almost certainly will not be with the Capitals, which would have seemed crazy six years ago when he was their leading scorer on their Stanley Cup run but became more realistic in recent offseasons when he was a frequent subject of trade rumors given his inconsistent performance.

“We have a history here that’s gone on for a while, and I think it’s frustrating on both sides,” MacLellan said. “It’s just an opportunity for our side, too, to start fresh and try to get him an opportunity to continue his career.”

Kuznetsov struggled this season before going into the player assistance program, putting up just 17 points in 43 games.

In 2019, he was suspended without pay for three regular-season games by the NHL for “inappropriate conduct.” That came less than a month after he was banned from playing for Russia for four years because of a positive test for cocaine.

He was nearly a point-a-game player in 2021-22, then struggled again in 2022-23, when the Capitals’ playoff streak ended at eight years.

The Capitals are 6-4-2 since Kuznetsov went into the program, the reasons for and details of which are confidential.

The emergence of 22-year-old Hendrix Lapierre, who centered a line with Alex Ovechkin and Tom Wilson in a 5-2 win against Philadelphia on Friday night, has been a part of the Capitals staying in the playoff race. Lapierre has five points in three games since coming up from the minors.

“It’s a different-looking team, and it’s played well since the break,” MacLellan said, crediting first-year coach Spencer Carbery. “He’s created a culture here for young guys to compete, to get better. He holds them accountable.”

Carbery scratched Kuznetsov earlier this season to send a message. Kuznetsov recorded just eight points since. Having Lapierre, Dylan Strome and Connor McMichael down the middle makes more sense to Washington than bringing Kuznetsov back.

“He’s got to get some stuff in his personal life straightened out, and I think playing wise, too,” MacLellan said. “He needs to find the level that he’s accustomed to playing at. Going down (to the AHL), working at it or playing in another organization — I don’t know he finds it, but I think it’s important for him.”

MacLellan said he was open to retaining part of Kuznetsov’s salary to facilitate a possible trade. The deadline is Friday, and the Capitals are expected to entertain offers on several players, including pending free agents Anthony Mantha, Max Pacioretty, Joel Edmundson and Nicolas Aube-Kubel.

“We have a week left to make some decisions,” MacLellan said. “I think our priority would be the future of our club. All decisions will be based on (that). It’s not, ‘Hey, we’re going to go out and rent a guy for the playoffs.’ We’re not in that game. We’re here to look for opportunities to find more young players, add more young players to our roster and compete.”

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AP NHL: https://apnews.com/hub/nhl

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