Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Washington Capitals 2016-2017 Previews -- Forwards: Evgeny Kuznetsov

Evgeny Kuznetsov

“Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.”
-- Henry Ford

It is hard to find any player in Washington Capitals history with the same meteoric progression of offensive numbers over their first three seasons in the NHL.  Part of it is a matter of circumstance, Kuznetsov appearing in only 17 games of the 2013-2014 season after his season at Chelyabinsk Traktor in the KHL ended.  He went 3-6-9, minus-2 in those 17 games.  He followed that up with a full-time rookie season in which he went 11-26-37, plus-10 in 80 games.  Then, last season, he arrived.  He went 20-57-77, plus-27, his 57 assists ranking fourth in the league and his 77 points tied for ninth.  His plus-27 finished sixth in the NHL and was the highest such number for any Capital since five players finished with higher plus-minus numbers in the “Showtime” 2009-2010 season.

Kuznetsov showed that he could score points in bunches last season.  Only three players – John Gaudreau, Artemi Panarin, and Patrick Kane – had more games with three or more points last season.   And that is not to say he wasn’t consistent.  Kuznetsov had points in 47 games for the Caps last season.  There are only four instances of a Capital with more season games with points over the last six seasons. And those games matter in the larger picture.  Washington earned points in 42 of 47 games in which Kuznetsov recorded a point (37-5-5).

Kuznetsov possession numbers have improved smartly as well.  His 5-on-5 Corsi-for was just 42.7 percent in 17 games in 2013-2014, improving to 49.2 percent in his rookie 2014-2015 season, and jumping to 52.5 percent last season.  He was third among Caps forwards in Corsi-for at fives last season, trailing only Justin Williams (53.4 percent) and Alex Ovechkin (53.2 percent; numbers from Corsica.Hockey).

Kuznetsov has also become more assertive as an offensive player, as one might expect having assumed the role of a top-six forward with power play responsibilities.  At a high level, his Corsi-for per 60 increased by more than 20 percent from his first to second year (from 42.6 to 53.8), and again by more than 15 percent from 2014-2015 to 2015-2016 (which might be as much a product of better teammates).  At a more specific, individual level, his shots per game overall increased from 1.29 in his 17-game 2013-2014 season to 1.59 per game in 2014-2015, and increased again in 2015-2016 to 2.35 shots per game.

Fearless’ Take…

Evgeny Kuznetsov (0.94) was second only to Calgary’s John Gaudreau (0.99) in points per game last season among players 23 years of age or younger appearing in at least 50 games.  Of course, Connor McDavid (1.07) would have bumped Kuznetsov to third had he appeared in that minimum number of games (he played in 45 games, limited to that by injury).  No player 23 or younger appearing in more than 50 games averaged more assists per game than Kuznetsov (0.70).  McDavid would have had more, but not by much (0.71 per game).  He is one of just 29 players age 23 or younger to have recorded at least 0.94 points per game in the 11 seasons since the 2004-2005 lockout (although some did it multiple times).

Cheerless’ Take…

About those possession numbers.  At 5-on-5 with the score tied last season, he was under 50 percent (48.9 percent) and was actually under his 2014-2015 number (49.2 percent).  Only Jason Chimera was worse (48.9 percent) among 11 Caps forwards with at least 150 5-on-5 minutes (numbers from Corsica.Hockey).  Then there were the playoffs.  Only three players, two of them defensemen (Roman Josi and Marc-Edouard Vlasic; Alex Hemsky was the forward), recorded at least 39 shots on goal (the total Kuznetsov had) and scored one or no goals.  He had no goals on 24 shots over his last nine postseason games.  The Caps went 3-6 in those games. 

The Big Question… Does Evgeny Kuznetsov have the description “elite” attached to him this season?

Evgeny Kuznetsov’s progress in two seasons has been remarkable, if not wholly unexpected (he is a first round draft pick generally thought of as one of the best pure talents in the 2010 draft).  He was top-ten in scoring last season and fourth in assists.  He is one of just five Capitals to record at least 75 points in a season in the post 2004-2005 lockout era.  Only Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin were younger when they did it for the first time in their respective careers.

Kuznetsov might not improve significantly over the numbers he posted last season, given that he would seem likely to get second line ice time and second power play ice time.  But, averaging at least a point per game is not an unreasonable expectation.  Only seven players in the league exceeded that threshold while playing in at least 50 games last season, and all of them are considered among the elite in the league.  One season achieving one measure would not constitute becoming an elite player, but insofar as Kuznetsov would do it in just his third full season, it would be another milepost passed on his way to being included in that category.

In the end….

Intro to NHL hockey…check.  Fine rookie season…check.  Among league leaders in scoring…check.  Clutch playoff performer… well, there was that five-goal output in 14 games in 2015, but the 2016 performance?   That left something more than “something” to be desired.  Two points in 14 games will not get it done, not for a top-six forward for whom “elite” status is hoped.

This is not an empty concern, since although Kuznetsov’s resume in tournament and postseason play is not very extensive, neither is it impressive, or at least not uniformly so.  There was his being the team’s leading regular season scorer by a wide margin (44 points in 51 games to 31 for Jan Bulis) for Chelyabinsk Traktor in the KHL in 2012-2013 but finishing tied for fifth on the team in postseason scoring (11 points in 25 games).  There was his two goals and five points in 18 tournament games (Euro Hockey Tour and World Championships) in 2013-2014. He was younger than many of his contemporaries in those situations, so perhaps we can think of his postseason performance level as having some room in which to grow.  But despite the fact that Kuznetsov just turned 24 last May, it is the postseason on which he – and the Caps – will be judged, as being either an elite player or an elite team.  He and the Caps came together three years ago, they stayed together through the last two seasons as Kuznetsov assumed a more responsible role.  Now it’s time to work together so that player and team can take the next step.

Projection: 80 games, 22-60-82, plus-22

Photo: Drew Hallowell/Getty Images North America