-- Steven Wright
Foodies will probably recognize the term “amuse-bouche.” A French term that can be translated, “to entertain the mouth,” they are generally bite-sized representations of the chef’s craft and skill, an indicator of what is to come in your meal. We have no idea what how the term translates into Russian, but late last season Evgeny Kuznetsov provided a bite-sized version of what might be in store for 2014-2015.
In 17 games Kuznetsov went 3-6-9 (a 43 point pace, albeit in a small population of games) and had a couple of highlight reel moments. Like his first NHL goal…
Or his first turn in the Gimmick…
Or his fake slap shot/pass to Tom Wilson…
But before we help young Mr. Kuznetsov clear some space on the mantel for a Calder Trophy as 2014-2015 rookie of the year, let’s all take a step back, take a deep breath, and remember that while he was 2-5-7 in his first nine games, he had only two points in his last eight games.
Then there is the matter of where he will play. Kuznetsov spent those 17 games at the end of last season at left wing. He is likely to start training camp auditioning for a new role: second line center, the persistent hole in the Capitals’ lineup. If he takes to the position, he could be the answer for the next decade. However, if he does not, it could mean a revolving door at that position once more.
In the 39-season history of the Washington Capitals, only 17 first year players playing in at least 15 games had more points-per-game than Evgeny Kuznetsov had last season (0.53). Last year’s 43-point pace, even if it was in a small population of games, was one that would have had him fourth overall in rookie scoring over a full season. Kuznetsov, who is still a rookie for purposes of the upcoming season, has some built in advantages in terms of hitting the ground running in October. He spent four seasons with Traktor Chelyabinsk in the KHL, honing his game against professionals in preparation for his move to the NHL. He also has significant international tournament experience – two world under-18 tournaments, three world junior tournaments, and three world championship tournaments. He is a rookie for NHL purposes, but perhaps not a "rookie" in terms of his experience, even if he is only 22 years old.
Yeah, about that whole second line center thing. It’s one thing to be a center moving to the wing, even it is a temporary thing – Nicklas Backstrom started his career with the Caps on the wing, Nathan MacKinnon spent a lot of time at right wing last season in Colorado. Both are natural centers (yeah, and both were younger than Kuznetsov, too). It is another thing for a player who has not played the position on a scoring line in the NHL to be put into that position as a rookie, even one with his international experience at the position. It might be that the best to be said here is that the team was patient enough with him in the position to allow him to grow into it and be a lot better at it in March than he might be in October.
The Big Question… What would a reasonable rookie season look like for Kuznetsov?
Those nine points in 17 games and the occasional highlight reel play might have some Caps fans entertaining thought of a big rookie season for Kuznetsov. Maybe 60 points, maybe even 70. OK, let’s take a minute here. Alex Ovechkin recorded 106 points as a rookie. That’s the franchise record, and the sun will go dark before it’s broken. Next on the list is Nicklas Backstrom, who had 69 points in 2007-2008. Chris Valentine in 1981-1982 and Bengt Gustaffson in 1979-1980 are the next centers on the list with 67 and 60 points, respectively, in their rookie seasons, but that was a different era.
Even if one looks at centers since the 2005-2006 lockout overall, there is Sidney Crosby at 102 points in 2005-2006 and then a long way to Paul Stastny in Colorado in 2006-2007 (78 points). Only five rookie centers since the 2004-2005 lockout have had 60 points, only 10 with more than 50, and some of those players were not full time centers in their rookie season.
Given who his linemates might be, Troy Brouwer on the right side and any of Marcus Johansson, Brooks Laich, or possibly even Eric Fehr or Jason Chimera on the other side, anything north of, say, 55 points would look like a pipe dream. But he has the skill and the experience (more so than most “rookies”) to perhaps challenge that 55-point level.
In the end…
We have seen Evgeny Kuznetsov entertain with a fair number of highlight plays in his young career to date. Over an 82-game season the object, given his role as a scoring line center, is going to be one of providing consistent production more than bursts of flair and helping make those around him better. Then there is the matter of his defensive responsibilities. He will not have the same lock-down role that a checking line center might have, but he can’t be caught cheating so much into the offensive end that his line becomes a defensive liability, either.
It is going to be a lot for Kuznetsov to assimilate in this role, even if he does have more than 200 regular season and playoff games of KHL experience and 37 games of world championship and world junior championship tournament experience. Now he gets to add to his NHL experience, and just in time, because how quickly he fills his new role will be one of the plot twists to pay attention to as the Caps look to return to the post-season.
Projection: 75 games, 18-32-50, even
Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America