Monday, May 23, 2016

Washington Capitals: 2015-2016 By the Tens -- Forwards: Evgeny Kuznetsov

Evgeny Kuznetsov

“If we will be quiet and ready enough, we shall find compensation in every disappointment.“
-- Henry David Thoreau

It has taken a while, but Evgeny Kuznetsov has taken his place among the leaders in his 2010 draft class in a number of offensive categories.  Although he ranks just 23rd in that class in NHL regular season games, he ranks tied for 17th in goals (with Cam Fowler), ninth in assists, 13th in points, sixth in plus-minus, and fifth in points per game among those of the 2010 draft class with at least 150 games played.

And that is with Kuznetsov having completed just his second full season with the Washington Capitals.  In 2015-2016 he finished ninth in the league in points (77) and fourth in assists (57).  His plus-27 tied Nashville’s James Neal and Pittsburgh’s Olli Maatta for sixth in the league.  Only three players (Patrick Kane, Artemi Parnarin, and John Gaudreau) had more games with three or more points than the eight recorded by Kuznetsov.

Things happened with Kuznetsov on the ice, although the results might not have been proportionate to the play at times.  In half of his ten-game splits, Kuznetsov finished with ten or more points.  Only twice did his on-ice Corsi-for (shot attempts) differential at 5-on-5 dip below plus-10, and that came early in the season (his second and third ten-game splits).  

However, if there was something ominous, something to portend difficulties in the playoffs, it came late in the season when his 5-on-5 goal differential went into negative territory in each of his last two ten-game splits (12 games in his last split).  There was also his plus-minus.  Only in the last ten-game split did Kuznetsov finish as a “minus” player after being at or near the top of the league rankings for much of the season.  And it was in that last ten-game split (12 games) that he recorded his only split without a goal.  In fact, Kuznetsov went his last 20 games of the regular season without a goal.

His scoring mattered.  The Caps were 14-2-1 in games in which he scored a goal, 37-5-5 in games in which he recorded a point.  And it was not just lighting the red light, it was activity, at least in terms of higher shot volumes.  In 19 games in which he recorded four or more shots, the Caps were 14-2-3.

Fearless’ Take… Even with the late-season problems, Kuznetsov managed to grind out points.  Until he had a five-game streak without a point late in the season (Games 71-75), he never went more than three games without a point.  And those 77 points are nothing to sneeze at.  He became the 11th player in Capitals history 24 years of age or younger to record a season of more than 75 points and the fifth since the 2004-2005 lockout (the others are the “Young Guns” – Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, and Alexander Semin).

Cheerless’ Take…  Among 14 Caps forwards with at least 200 even-strength minutes in the regular season, Kuznetsov had the third-best Corsi-for among Caps forwards at 5-on-5 (52.53 percent) and the third-best Corsi-for/Relative (plus-2.14).  Sounds good, but maybe those were inflated numbers.   His score-adjusted numbers were not bad – 53.51 percent Corsi-for (third) and plus-2.20 Corsi-for/Relative (third), but among 13 forwards with at least 100 even strength minutes when the score was tied, he had the second-worst Corsi-for (48.91 percent) and second-worst Corsi-for/Relative (minus-2.49 percent; numbers from

Odd Kuznetsov Fact… Being an offensive player means having the puck with which to set up plays or score goals.  And having the puck is made easier by starting plays with it instead of having to chase it down, and the brings us to faceoffs.  In 31 games in which Kuznetsov had a faceoff winning percentage of better than 50 percent, the Caps were 25-4-2; they were 9-0-1 in games in which he had ten or more faceoff wins.

Game to Remember… October 23rd versus Edmonton

In late October the Caps were wrapping up their trip to western Canada with a visit to Edmonton to face the Oilers after winning in Calgary over the Flames and in Vancouver over the Canucks.  Evgeny Kuznetsov had four points in the two games, all on assists.  It was mere prelude to what would unfold in Edmonton.  It started when Kuznetsov finished a smart tic-tac-toe passing play with Alex Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie from the top of the Oiler crease past goalie Anders Nilsson.  The teams then engaged in a back and forth that left the teams tied 3-3 approaching the mid-way point of the second period.  John Carlson lifted the puck out of the defensive end into neutral ice where Kuznetsov settled it, broke in on the Edmonton goal, and slid the puck through the pads of Nilsson.  Three minutes later he recorded the primary assist on a goal by Andre Burakovsky, then recorded an assist two minutes after that, skating with the puck for ten full seconds around the Oiler net before setting up a play that Justin Williams finished.  Kuznetsov capped his evening when he ripped a shot over the left shoulder of relief goalie Cam Talbot on a Caps power play, finishing the night with a hat trick and five points in the Caps’ 7-4 win.  It was Kuznetsov’s first career hat trick and his first five-point game (one of eight five-point games in the league this season).

Game to Forget… March 20th versus Pittsburgh

The Caps’ last visit to Pittsburgh in the regular season did not start poorly, but it ended poorly for them and for Evgeny Kuznetsov.  The Penguins scored the game’s first goal 8:33 into the game and doubled their lead less than two minutes later.  The Caps tied the game in the second period, but the Pens grabbed the lead back less than a minutes after the Caps tied it.  Early in the third period Matt Cullen broke behind Kuznetsov and in on goalie Braden Holtby.  His snap shot was blocked, but not stopped by Holtby, the puck crawling up and over his shoulder before dropping into the net.  Chris Kunitz scored less than four minutes later, then Justin Schultz scored on a power play six minutes after that.  By the time the horn sounded, the Penguins had a 6-2 win, and Kuznetsov had his game to forget – on ice for four of the first five Penguin goals, one shot attempt, and a minus-4 in less than 14 minutes of ice time, his fourth lowest of the season.

Postseason: 12 games, 1-1-2, minus-4, 55.1 percent Corsi-for at 5-on-5, plus-4.7 CF%/Relative

What a difference a year made.  In 14 games in the 2015 postseason Kuznetsov had two goals (including the series-clinching goal in Game 7 of the first round against the New York Islanders) and seven points in 14 games, with a plus-4 to go along with it.  Not bad for his first NHL postseason.  One might have been forgiven if that, plus being one of the top ten scorers in the league, would be a springboard to a fine 2016 postseason.   However, there was that late-seaosn swoon to consider, and that was a stronger indicator of postseason performance for Kuznetsov than his previous postseason or his regular season overall might have suggested.  He scored a goal in Game 3 against the Philadelphia Flyers, and he had an assist in Game 2 of the second round series against Pittsburgh, both points coming on power plays.  That was it.  No even strength points, one goal on 39 shots overall.  And the odd part of its was, the outcomes (points) diverged so much from the outputs (Corsi, Corsi/Relative), which looked so much better (numbers from

In the end…

Evgeny Kuznetsov was – is, in fact – that productive second line center the Caps have been looking for since long before the Caps went back to red jerseys.  He is one of only ten centers in Caps history to record more than 75 points in a season and the only one other than Nicklas Backstrom in the post 2004-2005 lockout era.  He has a bright future ahead of him.  But that second line center problem – one that has haunted Caps’ postseason dreams for almost a decade – reared its ugly head once more. 
Playing well, at least insofar as the underlying numbers were concerned, just was not enough.  Maybe there wasn’t enough “battle” in Kuznetsov’s game when goals became harder to come by, maybe it was part of a longer slump, or maybe it was just bad luck.  But the fact is, Kuznetsov scored one goal in his last 32 games this season, regular season and playoffs.  It was like earning an “A” grade for the first half of the semester, then squandering the fine grade with poor performance on the final.  It is the kind of disappointment that can be a learning moment, that the postseason really is different, and that for a player with responsibilities as important as Kuznetsov’s it isn’t necessarily how you start, but how you finish. 

Grade: B-

Photo: Elsa/Getty Images North America

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