Sunday, September 13, 2015

Washington Capitals 2015-2016 Previews -- Forwards: Evgeny Kuznetsov

Evgeny Kuznetsov

“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.

Fearless’ Take…

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
  • 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.

Cheerless’ Take…

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  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  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

Washington Capitals 2015-2016 Previews -- Forwards: Marcus Johansson

Marcus Johansson

“It is a mistake to look too far ahead. Only one link of the chain of destiny can be handled at a time.”
-- Winston Churchill

Tyler Seguin, Jordan Eberle, Jeff Skinner, Derek Stepan, Marcus Johansson.  Those are the five players who, in their first five seasons ending with last year’s campaign have appeared in at least 300 career games, recording at least 60 goals and at least 150 points.  Oh sure, you could say that such production on Johansson's part has been achieved mostly as the third guy on a line with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, but keep in mind that last season he set a personal best of 17 even strength goals playing primarily with Troy Brouwer and Evgeny Kuznetsov at 5-on-5.

Johansson had a number of career bests last seaaon.  For the first time in his five-year career he appeared in all 82 games.  Twenty goals was a personal best.  So was 47 points.  Encouraged to shoot more, he recorded a career high 138 shots on goal.  His total shots attempted (253) obliterated his previous best (177 in each of his first two seasons).  He even had 69 credited hits.  Not “Brooks Orpik-ish,” but it was more than, say, Joel Ward (53 in 82 games).

His production was an ingredient in Caps success last season, as well.  Washington was 12-3-3 in games in which Johansson recorded a goal, 23-9-6 in games in which he recorded a point.  Johansson was also a very consistent performer last season.  He had at least one goal in each ten-game segment over the course of the season, and he had five or more points in six of the eight segments. 

There was also the matter of effectiveness at the other end of the ice.  Of 115 forwards appearing in at least 80 games last season, only 12 were on ice for fewer goals than Johansson (41 in 82 games).  Then there is the notion of playing within the rules.  In the modern era of hockey (post 1967 expansion), only 11 players have appeared in more than 300 games and recorded 50 or fewer career penalty minutes.  Johansson (345 games, 36 career penalty minutes) is one of those 11.  Last season, among players recording at least 1,000 minutes of ice time, Johansson was 12th in minutes of total ice time per penalty minute charged (10 PIMS in 1,351 minutes).

Fearless’ Take…

Johansson had the best possession numbers of his career in 2014-2015.  His Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5 (53.8) was the first time in five years he finished north of 50 percent.  His Corsi-relative at 5-on-5 (plus-2.4) was also his best in five seasons.  Part of that might have been the overall approach employed by new head coach Barry Trotz – Johansson’s Corsi-against/60 was the lowest (51.2) by far of his career (57.7 in 2012-2013; numbers from  Still, Johansson has shown himself to be consistent, responsible at both ends of the ice, and characterized by modest improvements in his underlying numbers.

Cheerless’ Take…

In his last 40 playoff games, Marcus Johansson has three goals.  That is as many as Jay Beagle has in 37 career playoff games.  It is as many as Karl Alzner has in his last 18 playoff games.  He has only nine points in his last 36 postseason games.  That is as many as Joel Ward had in 14 games last spring.  Is is as many as Calgary rookie Johnny Gaudreau had in 11 games last spring.   The Caps needed – they need – more out of Johansson in these games than they are getting.

The Big Question… What is Johansson’s upside, and have we seen it?

In his first five years, Marcus Johansson has averaged 0.54 points per game.  In the three seasons in which he appeared in more than 70 games, he hovered right around that number – 0.58 points per game in 2011-2012, 0.55 points per game in 2013-2014, and 0.57 points per game last season.  He will turn 25 in the first week of October, so there is a line of thinking that says he is still some time away from reaching the chronological prime of his career. 

Some things to think about.  If you compare their first five seasons, T.J. Oshie has better overall numbers on a per-game basis than Johansson: 0.24 to 0.18 in goals, 0.43 to 0.36 in assists, 0.67 to 0.54 in points.  On the other hand, Johansson’s best season in goals (20) was better than Oshie’s (19), and his best assist year (36) was better than Oshie’s best (35).  And, Oshie’s first five years in the NHL ended with Oshie at age 26, Johansson at age 24.  Then consider two players, both in their numbers over their first five seasons.  Both played in 345 games.  Player A was 61-125-186, minus-15.  Player B was 73-118-191, minus-8.  Player A is Marcus Johansson; Player B is Ryan O’Reilly.  You could say O’Reilly has more of an upside (his five year window was at a younger age than Johansson, and he does have a 28-goal season on his resume).  But Johansson might not be all that far behind him, either, despite all those favorable linemate assignments in the early part of his career.

In the end…

Marcus Johansson has had a curious early career.  He was the 24th overall pick of the 2009 entry draft, but he is top-ten in his draft cohort in games played (345/8th), goals (61/7th), assists (125/5th), and points (186/5th).  Yet, he seems oddly underappreciated by Capitals Nation.  He has a calm demeanor on the ice, not unlike countryman Nicklas Backstrom, which some might mistake for a lackadaisical approach.  He has seemed a bit deferential when playing with more accomplished linemates Ovechkin and Backstrom, but he took guidance to heart this past season and shot more, with pleasant results.  His body of work was enough for an arbitrator to award him a one-year, $3.75 million contract.  On an average value basis It is equivalent to the contract of Jakob Silfverberg, a player with similar per-game offensive production in his first three years (the contract circumstances differ; Silfverberg’s contact is a four-year deal), and Anders Lee, whose four-year deal that starts this year is for a player who stepped up with a 25-goal season last year for the New York Islanders.

Johansson’s compensation appears reasonable given the average annual value neighborhood in which he resides (based on numbers from  As the season approaches that affords Johansson an opportunity to raise his value, there is the matter of just where he is going to play.  The default position would seem to be on the left side on the second line.  He could fill in at center on the third line if Nicklas Backstrom does not open the season ready to play, although head coach Barry Trotz said that Johansson will open training camp at wing.  Wherever he opens the regular season – or closes it, for that matter – improving his performance in the postseason is going to be a critical element in the Caps’ ability to go deeper than we have seen in recent years.  In that sense, even looking ahead to what next summer might bring in terms of a new contract might be a bit too far on the horizon.  Johansson has links in his career chain to handle first.

Projection: 80 games, 19-30-49, plus-7

Photo: Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images North America