“We cannot make events. Our business is wisely to improve them.”
-- Samuel Adams
If you google “Evgeny Kuznetsov” and “elite,” you’ll get more than 30,000 hits, many of them describing Kuznetsov as an elite passer, or an elite playmaker, or generically as having “elite skills.” It is difficult to keep in mind that Kuznetsov has not yet played in 300 regular season NHL games (261 in fact). But you could argue that his production has not yet matched those descriptions.
Over the last three seasons, Kuznetsov has missed only two games. However, 115 players have more goals than the 53 scored by Kuznetsov, 35 have more points than the 173 he has, and 32 players have both more goals and more points than those recorded by Kuznetsov. Good numbers, but “elite?” Perhaps it is a product of his taking primarily second line minutes in those three seasons, but there still seems to be space between Kuznetsov’s performance and the legitimate use of the term “elite.” It is the difference between perceived skill and actual performance.
That performance dropped a bit last season from his 2015-2016 numbers, his goal total edging down by one (from 20 to 19), his assists off by 17 (from 57 to 40), and his points down from 77 to 59. But Kuznetsov did remain a positive possession player. Even if his shot attempts-for slipped a touch, he was still over 50 percent (51.95), sixth-best among forwards playing at least half the team’s games and better than any of the numbers put up by the top line of Alex Ovechkin (50.26), Nicklas Backstsrom (51.23), and T.J. Oshie (51.67).
Odd Kuznetsov Fact… Kuznetsov finished tied for 48th place in voting for the Selke Trophy as best defensive forward last season. He received only one vote, but in doing so he became the fifth Capital forward to receive votes for the award. No team had more (Minnesota had five as well).
Despite four seasons coming and going between Evgeny Kuznetsov being drafted (in 2010) and his taking a full-time spot in the lineup (in 2014-2015), he ranks 22nd in games played in his draft class (261), 17th in goals scored (53), eighth in assists (129), 12th in points (182), and fifth in plus-minus (plus-53). All rankings are higher than his 26th overall selection slot (parenthetically, Brett Connolly, now a Capital, was taken sixth overall in that draft by Tampa Bay).
Kuznetsov had a strange season in that it looked like a bell curve (and I’ll bet you thought I didn’t know what a bell curve was). His point totals by ten-game splits were: 6-3-8-10-12-8-6-6. That’s not exactly the kind of finish one would have hoped for, especially for an “elite” player. The odd thing of it, though, was not that his goals tailed off (much) but that his assists did. He had 30 assists in his third (8), fourth (10), and fifth (12) ten-game splits. He had 22 in his last three splits (8-6-6, which included a 12-game final split).
Potential Milestones to Reach in 2017-2018:
- 300 games (currently has 261)
- 200 points (currently has 182)
- 50 even strength goals (currently has 40)
- 100 even strength assists (currently has 94)
- 200 credited hits (currently has 180)
The Big Question… Is Kuznetsov taking his place among the league’s “elite” centers a necessary result for a successful Capitals season?
The question needs a bit of clarity. First, one must define “elite” in some objective manner. Second, whatever that definition is, we are making the presumption that Kuznetsov does not fulfill it. Put in a more positive way, Kuznetsov has room to grow on his development curve. So, what might be a suitable definition? Might it be 25 goals and 60 assists? If that is it, only two players hit those marks over the last five seasons: Sidney Crosby (36-68-104 in 2013-2014) and Connor McDavid (30-70-100 last season). How about 20-50-70? Seven players have done it over the last five years. Nicklas Backstrom and Sidney Crosby are the only ones to do it twice, but the list also includes players who might not pass the “sniff test” of being elite (Mark Schiefele, Claude Giroux). Kuznetsov has actually hit this mark himself, and to do it again and become perhaps only the third center to accomplish the feat more than once in six seasons would qualify as “elite.”
Kuznetsov’s pursuit of these marks could be made easier if he is matched with Alex Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie on one top-six line (and Nicklas Backstrom on the other, thus blurring the distinction between a “first” and a “second” line). What complicates the issue is that the two players from last season with whom Kuznetsov skated most of his 5-on-5 ice time – Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson – have left for other teams. It is not that he is unfamiliar with Ovechkin, having skated more than 300 5-on-5 minutes with him the past two years (numbers from naturalstattrick.com), but he has not skated consistent minutes with him, and he had barely 100 minutes with Oshie last season (he had more minutes skating with Tom Wilson). The chemistry had better come sooner rather than later, though. Given the losses of Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson among the forwards, the production has to be made up somewhere among the top-six, and Kuznetsov is as likely a source as any to provide it. If he does not, there isn't enough scoring depth coming back to give the Caps a working margin of goals scored and goals allowed to be considered a contender.
In the end…
What we have not done yet is answer that second question above entirely. Last season, Kuznetsov was poised, based on his 2015-2016 season, to join the ranks of elite centers in the league. However, his numbers lagged a bit in a second line role. He could, if matched with Alex Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie, get more opportunities to put up bigger numbers. The eye test of his skill set and potential would seem to indicate such a resumption of his increasing offensive output is, if not a certainty, than certainly somewhere between possibility and likelihood.
In his fifth season with the Caps, Evgeny Kuznetsov is poised to join an interesting fraternity in club history. There are 30 players in Caps history with at least 60 goals and at least 150 assists. He would seem to be a lock to become the 31st. If he finishes with at least 17 goals and at least 51 assists, he could be the 25th 70-180-250 player in team history and only the sixth in team history to do it in his first five seasons (Alex Ovechkin, Mike Gartner, Nicklas Backstrom, Bobby Carpenter, and Bengt Gustafsson are the others). At the age of 25 and with a new eight-year/$62.4 million contract in his pocket, the task now at the top of the to-do list is improvement.
Projection: 81 games, 24-56-80, plus-20
Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images North America