“He who would learn to fly one day must first learn to stand and walk and run and climb and dance; one cannot fly into flying.”
-- Friedrich Nietzsche
Evgeny Kuznetsov started last season on a short list of Calder Trophy candidates. His candidacy for rookie of the year honors faded with the hot start of Nashville’s Filip Forsberg, the late push of Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau, the solid play of Florida defenseman Aaron Ekblad, and the surprising performance of Ottawa’s Mark Stone.
Not that Kuznetsov played poorly. He was 4-11-15, plus-6, in his first four ten-game segments of the season. It just was not what many were expecting from the former 26th overall pick in the 2010 entry draft. But even with that start, there were signs that so-so production was not going to be the norm. He did struggle out of the box, recording just one goal and six points in his first 20 contests. Then he had his first two-point game of the season, a goal and an assist in a 5-2 win over the New York Islanders on November 28th. It started him off on a 2-3-5 run over six games and 3-5-8 over a 13-game stretch. Not a Ross Trophy pace, but it got Kuznetsov off the floor and contributing on a more regular basis.
He saved his best for last, though. In his last 17 games of the regular season, Kuznetsov was 5-8-13, plus-5. The goal scoring reflected an increased willingness to take things into his own hands. In his last dozen games, Kuznetsov recorded 27 shots on goal, almost as many as he recorded in his previous 20 games (28).
That would be prelude to a postseason in which Kuznetsov more than held his own. After going the first four games of the opening round without a point, his three-point effort in Game 5 against the Islanders (2-1-3) led the Caps to a win that put them up, three games to two. He followed that up with the game-winning goal with less than eight minutes left in the Caps’ 2-1 win in Game 7. In all, Kuznetsov went 5-2-7 over his last 10 postseason games to finish first among all rookies in goals scored in the postseason and tied for third in points.
It was quite a late-season push for Kuznetsov. In his last 31 games (17 regular season and 14 in the playoffs), he was 10-10-20, plus-9, 24 of those 31 games played against playoff-eligible teams or in the postseason. The Caps’ season ended too soon, once more, but they apparently -- finally -- found within their own system their second line center.
Kuznetsov’s brief career to date has been marked by steady improvement as a possession player. In 2013-2014 he had a Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5 of 42.3. Learning a new league and new rink dimensions has its early speed bumps. In 2014-2015 he wasn’t quite there as a possession player, but he did improve, and he was consistent. His 20-game Corsi-for percentage splits at 5-on-5 and game above 50 percent were as follows (numbers from war-on-ice.com):
- 1st: 51.1/9
- 2nd: 49.9/9
- 3rd: 47.1/8
- 4th: 49.2/9
In 14 playoff games his Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5 was 49.6 percent, and he was above 50 percent in eight of those 14 games. It was not a great performance on his part, but he was 10th among 25 rookies appearing in at least five postseason games and fifth among 11 rookies appearing in at least ten playoff games.
Kuznetsov skated more than 100 5-on-5 minutes with five different forwards: Troy Brouwer (509:46), Marcus Johansson (379:18), Jason Chimera ((142:28), Joel Ward (142:04), and Alex Ovechkin (126:50). Three of those five players had better Corsi-for percentages apart from Kuznetsov than they had with him (numbers from stats.hockeyanalysis.com). Two of them were his most frequent linemates – Brouwer and Johansson – and it was not close (Brouwer: 48.2 percent with Kuznetsov, 54.2 apart; Johansson: 49.9/55.4).
The Big Question… Is Kuznetsov “The Solution?”
Last season, we overshot on the projection for Kuznetsov by quite a bit. However, those last 31 games of season, including playoffs, were played at a 26-26-52 scoring pace per 82 games against some stout competition. Kuznetsov got there in a roundabout way, sort of like his development to date – four years in the KHL before coming to North America late in teh 2013-2014 season. His learning curve in the North American game might have been delayed, and perhaps even stunted by staying a couple of extra years in Russia, but the finish he had to the 2014-2015 season suggested that the function has taken a steeper upward trajectory.
He could very well be tossed into the deep end of the pool to start the 2015-2016 season, should Nicklas Backstrom be unable to answer the bell to open the season. He would be the likely candidate to assume the center duties on the top line with Alex Ovechkin and whoever emerges from training camp as the right wing (at this point, it would appear to be T.J. Oshie). Better early than late, perhaps, since it will give him an opportunity to match his game against the best defense opponents can muster. One would think this could only help him as the season wears on when he slides back into the second line center position.
In the end…
Evgeny Kuznetsov was extended by the Caps with a two-year/$6.0 million (including a $400,000 signing bonus) contract this past July. Among age comparables, the average annual value resembles those of Minnesota’s Charlie Coyle and Mikael Granlund, and Montreal’s Alex Galchenyuk (from generalfanager.com). If Kuznetsov continues the progress he exhibited late last season, the deal will look like a bargain. But more than this, Kuznetsov could represent the best candidate, other than Nicklas Backstrom, to fill a scoring line center position as a home-grown draft product since Michal Pivonka, who was drafted by the Capitals in 1984.
Kuznetsov is part of that second wave of “Young Guns” (Andre Burakovsky, Tom Wilson, and perhaps Jakub Vrana) that will have to fulfill their potential if the Caps are to be a bona fide championship contender over the remainder of this decade. Kuznetsov is arguably the most important of that group, given his skill set and the role he is being asked to fill. Having learned to walk and stand in the North American game in his first full season, Kuznetsov’s second season might include some of the climbing and running of which Nietzsche spoke. If by the spring he is flying, the Caps and their fans might be dancing as the calendar turns to summer.
Projection: 80 games, 17-36-53, plus-12
Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America