“Do not be in a hurry to succeed. What would you have to live for afterwards? Better make the horizon your goal; it will always be ahead of you.”
-- William Makepeace Thackeray
It took eight years, but Evgeny Kuznetsov arrived in 2017-2018. Taken 26th overall in the 2010 entry draft (the same one in which Brett Connolly was taken sixth overall), it took that long for Kuznetsov to become one of the best offensive centers in the NHL. In his fifth NHL season he set career highs in goals (27), points (83), power play goals (7), power play points (30), time on ice (18:49 per game), and shooting percentage (14.4 percent). On his way to a 27-56-83, plus-3 season, he was a model of offensive consistency, only twice in 79 games going as many as three consecutive contests without a point.
His 83-point season gave Kuznetsov 219 points over his last three seasons, 17th highest in the league over that span, one fewer than John Tavares, and seventh among centers (source: NHL.com). In that same span he is one of 11 players (oddly enough, only three full time centers, joining Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid) to post at least two seasons of at least 75 points (Sidney Crosby and Patrick Kane are the only ones to do it in each of the three seasons).
And, Kuznetsov took a big step up in the games that matter most. After three lackluster postseasons in which he went a combined 11-8-19, minus-9, in 39 games, he went 12-20-32 (leading the league in playoff assists and points), plus-12. It was good enough to earn him five of 18 first-place votes for the Conn Smythe Trophy as to the postseason’s most valuable player.
But what moment that will be most vivid in the minds of Caps fans in 2018 might be that moment when he took his place alongside Dale Hunter, John Druce, Brian Bellows, Joe Juneau, Joel Ward, and Marcus Johansson – players in Capitals history who clinched a playoff series with a game-winning goal in overtime:
Odd Kuznetsov Fact…
Evgeny Kuznetsov is one of four centers over the past four seasons to take more than 3,500 faceoffs and have a winning percentage under 46 percent.
Bonus Kuznetsov Odd Fact…
Kuznetsov’s overtime game-winning series-clinching goal against the Pittsburgh Penguins doubles the population of game-winning series-clinching goal scorers in Caps postseason series against the Pens. He joined Calle Johansson, who had the game-winner in a 6-3 series-clinching win over Pittsburgh in Game 6 of the first round in 1994.
Evgeny Kuznetsov is one of 11 players in Capitals history to record at least 75 goals and at least 250 points in his first five years with the club. And the list includes a lot of Capitals royalty. He is one of seven centers in team history recording at least 0.50 assists per game (minimum: 250 games with the Caps).
At age 26, he is entering what should l be his prime productive years. One thing he has done along the way is become more efficient and, to a degree, more assertive as a shooter. His shooting percentage has increased in each of his four full seasons in the league, from 8.7 percent in his rookie season to 14.4 percent last season, while posting 187 shots on goal (six short of his career high). He has become, if not the 1-A choice on the power play, than the 1-B choice. His power play ice time (3:27 last season) was almost equivalent to that of Nicklas Backstrom (3:31), and his 30 power play points was only one fewer than Alex Ovechkin for the team lead. He is the only center other than Nicklas Backstrom with as many as 30 power play points in a season since Robert Lang did it in 2003-2004 (35 points).
Before we go all ga-ga over Evgeny, there has been a bit of yo-you quality to his last four seasons – 37 points in 80 games in 2014-2015, followed by 77 points in 2015-2016, down to 59 points in 2016-2017, and then 83 points last season. Then there are the on-ice performance numbers. Over the three seasons before this one, his goal differential on-ice versus off ice were plus-13, plus-27, and plus-19 in 2016-2017. This past season it was plus-7 (numbers from hockey-reference.com). This might be a product of his becoming the first line center, with all the added attention that (and being Alex Ovechkin’s center) brings. But that, and his being underwater on shot attempts-for on ice at 5-on-5 (48.6 percent) might make one wonder if he didn’t lean a bit too heavily on power plays (30 of 83 points last season).
- 400 career games (he needs 60)
- 100 goals (he needs 20)
- 200 career assists (he needs 15)
- 300 career points (he needs 35)
- 200 penalty minutes (he needs 44)
- 20 power play goals (he needs one)
- 100 power play points (he needs 23)
- 6,000 minutes played (he needs 400)
The Big Question… Is Kuznetsov ready to take his place among the elite centers in the league?
Centers like Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid spring fully formed (or as fully formed as a teenager can be) on the NHL landscape. Most others, even those achieving elite status, need a bit of time to get there. Evgeny Kuznetsov did not enter the league ranks as a teenager, delaying his entry into the NHL for almost four full seasons after he was drafted in 2010. So, he came in as a more mature rookie than most, and his formative years took place in his mid-20’s rather than his early 20’s. But with two 75-point seasons in his last three and his sterling performance in the 2018 postseason, all that remains for him to cement his place among the league centers is to display a consistency at this level of production with another 75-plus point season. To do it three times in four seasons would be evidence to that end. Only three players in the league have three such seasons in the last four – Patrick Kane (3), Jamie Benn (3), and Sidney Crosby (4).
In the end…
It is probably inaccurate to think of the Caps as having a number one and a number two center. And that is a situation to be savored for Caps fans, one that plays no small role in the team’s success. Nicklas Backstrom has been a center of number one stature and production for a decade. Evgeny Kuznetsov gave every indication last season that he can, if he does not already, occupy such a position. But Backstrom has done for that decade. Kuznetsov is still on the low side of his prime years, and he has an opportunity in 2018-2019 to firmly establish himself as a true number one center based on a consistency of production. That is the horizon that now stretches out ahead of him.
Projection: 80 games, 28-60-88, plus-8
Photo: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images North America