Sunday, September 08, 2019

Washington Capitals 2019-2020 Previews -- Forwards: Evgeny Kuznetsov

Evgeny Kuznetsov

“Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun's rays do not burn until brought to a focus.”
-- Alexander Graham Bell

In less than 15 months, Evgeny Kuznetsov went from Stanley Cup champion and a player some thought deserving of the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player of the postseason to suspended for four years from international play for a positive test for a banned substance. 

It came on the heels of what was an inconsistent, disappointing season for one of the most innately gifted players in the history of the franchise.  It was not that his production fell off a cliff; his top-end numbers were down (21-51-72 in 76 games, compared to 27-56-83 the previous season) but not by drastic amounts.  It was that after an 83-point season, one of 18 players appearing in at least 75 games to average more than a point-per-game in 2017-2018, he seemed to be on the brink of taking a place among the elite performers in the NHL.

He started hot last season, going 7-25-32 in his first 28 games and not going consecutive games without a point.  He finished strong, going 4-8-12 in his last dozen games.  However, there was that dry void in the middle – 10-18-28 in 36 games.  It was by no means a bad stretch of games; he had seven multi-point games in that part of the schedule, including a three-point and a four-point game.  But, it was not an elite stretch either; in half of those games (18) he did not record a point.  That was a bit hard to accept for the top-line center on this team.  And it mattered.  The Caps were just 11-15-1 in the 27 games in which he did not record a point.

Odd Kuznetsov Fact…

If Evgeny Kuznetsov posts at least 20 multi-point games this season, he will become the 11th capital to do it more than once.  The others:
  • Alex Ovechkin: 10 seasons
  • Mike Gartner: 6
  • Nicklas Backstrom: 5
  • Peter Bondra: 5
  • Dennis Maruk: 3
  • Adam Oates: 2
  • Bob Carpenter: 2
  • Geoff Courtnall: 2
  • Michal Pivonka: 2
  • Mike Ridley: 2

Bonus Odd Kuznetsov Fact…

Kuznetsov is one of six players over the last five seasons to post at least 300 points and record a plus-minus of plus-60 or better (328 points, plus-65).  The others:
  • Nikita Kucherov (444/plus-99)
  • Brad Marchand (373/plus-84)
  • Mark Scheifele (336/plus-72)
  • Artemi Panarin (320/plus-63)
  • Patrice Bergeron (318/plus-70)

Fearless’ Take…

You have to wonder what a season for Kuznetsov would look like if he really put it all together.  There was the 2015-2016 season, when he received votes for the All Star team, Byng, Hart, and Selke trophies.  Even with the let down in 2016-2017 (59 points), he earned votes for the Selke trophy.  He posted career highs of 27 goals and 83 points in 2017-2018 and might have added a Conn Smythe trophy.  Despite last year being a disappointing one, he still posted more than 50 assists for the third time in four seasons, one of only seven players in the league to do it at least three times in the last four seasons.  (Nicklas Backstrom is the only player to do it all four years and has a six-year streak running).  The talent is clearly there; Caps fans just have not yet seen the full spectrum of it over an entire season.

Cheerless’ Take…

Kuznetsov did not do particularly well with a heavy ice time burden.  In 22 games in which he skated more than 20 minutes, he was 5-14-19, plus-1, and the Caps were 9-7-6.  He also has, if not an extreme, than at least a modest “sawtooth” pattern to his scoring over his five full seasons in the NHL: 37 points in 80 games in 2014-2015, 77 in 82 games the following year, 59 in 82 games in 2016-2017, 83 points in 2017-2018, and 72 points last season.  

And, there was the playoff performance.  Yes, a lot of Caps underperformed their 2018 contributions, but Kuznetsov is the top line center.  He underperforms and, well, we saw what happened.  He did score what would be the last goal in the Caps’ season, in Game 7 against Carolina, but it was the only one he scored in the series.  Compare that with the 12 he had in 24 games in the 2018 playoffs, and it was quite a disappointment.

Potential Milestones:
  • 400 career points (337; he needs 63)
  • 1,000 career shots on goal (892; he needs 108)
  • 100 career multi-point games (81; he needs 19)
  • Top-20 all time in goals as a Capital (101; he needs 28 to tie Alan Haworth (129), unless T.J. Oshie gets there first)
  • Top-20 all time in points as a Capital (337; he needs 23 to tie Mike Green (360))
  • Top-15 all time in points as a Capital (337; he needs 71 to tie Alexander Semin (408), unless John Carlson gets there first)
  • Top-15 all time in assists as a Capital (236; he needs 23 to tie Larry Murphy (259))
  • Top-15 all time in game winning goals as a Capital (20; he needs two to tie Bob Carpenter (22))

The Big Question… Will off-ice issues be too much of a distraction for Evgeny Kuznetsov this season?

This question might be the elephant in the locker room.  Washington cannot succeed if Kuznetsov has a season that does not measure up to last year’s standard, and even matching that would be something of a disappointment for those who believe him to be an elite talent.  It is a confounding situation in which Kuznetsov finds himself, high expectations under the burden of his suspension, but even with a “disappointing” 70-point season he would be only the eighth player in Caps history with four 70-plus point seasons, and only five will have had more.  One thing to watch for is what kind of start Kuznetsov gets off to.  In three of the last four seasons, he has recorded at least 20 points in the Caps’ first 20 games (2015-2016, 2017-2018, and last season).  A slow start would be an early indicator that not all is well.

The Caps simply cannot afford a sluggish or distracted Kuznetsov having his production diminish.  In five full seasons with the club, Washington is 243-114-42 in games in which he recorded a point.  That works out to a 50-23-9 record per 82 games.  The difference he makes on the power play is even more important.  In those five seasons, he has at least one power play point in 86 games, and the team has a record of 64-15-7 in those contests.  Yes, with points come success, but he being a centerpiece of that success, if his production drops off to any appreciable degree, it seems unlikely that the Caps can make it up from other players.

In the end…

While no other sanctions appear under consideration, or at least imminent, Kuznetsov’s suspension from international play could be a cloud that hangs over Kuznetsov all season.  It could put his play under a microscope, people looking for every hiccup in his performance as a reason to think the worst.  It is the sort of distraction a team thinking of itself as a contender in a hyper-competitive division does not need.

However, looked at from a different point of view, Kuznetsov has been given an opportunity.  If he is able to focus on the game and compartmentalize his other difficulties, he might finally unleash the sort of production his talent suggests he has, but has yet to display fully.  His 2018 postseason gave Caps fans a look at just what that kind of performance looks like.  If Kuznetsov can perform at or near that level over an entire season, it would go a long way to coming to terms with his other problems and putting them behind him.

Projection: 78 games, 22-55-77, plus-8

Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images North America