“I am always ready to learn although I do not always like being taught.”
-- Winston Churchill
“I’m going to learn from this, that’s for sure.” That is how the 2019-2020 season began for Washington Capitals forward Evgeny Kuznetsov. Having tested positive for a prohibited substance, and having been suspended for four years from international play by the International Ice Hockey Federation, Kuznetsov opened the new NHL season by accepting a three-game suspension for “inappropriate conduct.”
After the Caps went 2-0-1 in his absence to open the season, Kuznetsov hit the ground running, or “skating,” as it were. He averaged a point a game over his first 42 games (16-26-42, tied with teammate Alex Ovechkin for 20th in the league points at the time), shooting what would have been a career best 18.2 percent, had it been sustained over a full season. It was unlikely that the Caps’ 30-10-5 record after 45 games (42 in which Kuznetsov participated) was a coincidence. The Caps had the best record in the league at the time and the league’s fourth best scoring offense (3.56 goals per game).
Things went south from there for both Kuznetsov and the Caps. In his last 21 games of the regular season, Kuznetsov went 3-7-10, minus-7 and shot just 7.1 percent. He did not record a single power play point in that span. He had one multi-point game (two assists in a 4-3 win over Minnesota on March 1st). He had as many goals in that span as Garnet Hathaway, fewer points than Richard Panik and Carl Hagelin. Only Tom Wilson had a worse plus-minus rating (minus-10) than did Kuznetsov over that span.
Even with the two-seasons-in-one character of his season, Kuznetsov had an odd, indifferent effect on results in Caps games. They were 24-11-4 in the 39 games in which he recorded points (1.33 standings points per game), 14-7-3 in the 24 games in which he did not (1.29 standings points per game). Even his goal scoring lacked a certain impact. Washington was 8-6-2 in the 16 games in which he recorded a goal, 30-12-5 in the 47 games in which he did not. Shooting did not seem to matter much, either – 10-10-3 in the 23 games in which he posted three or more shots on goal, 9-1-0 in games in which he did not record a shot on goal. Where he did matter was on power plays. The Caps were 9-3-0 in the 12 games in which he recorded at least one power play point.
Peerless likes to drone on about paying attention to detail as an indicator of devotion to one’s craft, so I’ll say it for him. Kuznetsov sucks on faceoffs. There were 151 players in the NHL taking at least 250 draws this season. Only 13 had worse winning percentages than Kuznetsov (43.3). In fact, since his first full season in the league in 2014-2015, 141 players took at least 2,000 faceoffs, and only three (Jack Eichel, Jared McCann, and Mike Ribeiro) had worse winning percentages than Kuznetsov (43.8).
Odd Kuznetsov Fact… If there is a career parallel for Evgeny Kuznetsov among Capitals at this point in his career, look to Bobby Carpenter. Many of the numbers are quite close:
Odd Kuznetsov Fact II… When the top-six forwards get a lot of ice time, it could indicate their being called upon to dig their club out of a deficit. You might expect that in some instances, results in games with high ice time values are less pleasant than games with lower ice time values. However, in Kuznetsov’s case, the difference is so stark as to be surprising. In 35 games in which he skated at least 18 minutes this season, the Caps were 16-14-5. In the other 28 games, those in which he skated less than 18 minutes, they were 22-4-2.
Game to Remember… November 9, 2019. When Evgeny Kuznetsov is on his game, there are few players more fun to watch. And when the Caps hosted the Vegas Golden Knights in early November, fun was the name of the game in the first minute. Dmitry Orlov took a pass from Jakub Vrana as he was exiting the defensive zone, and he fed the puck up to Kuznetsov, who looked as if he was shot out a cannon as he got behind the defense for a breakaway. He skated in alone on goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, moved the puck to his forehand, and snapped a shot over Fleury’s right pad to give the Caps a 1-0 lead just 58 seconds into the game.
The Caps took a 3-2 lead into the third period and nursed it along for 11 minutes before they struck once more on a power play. Kuznetsov took a pass from Nicklas Backstrom as he was circling out of the defensive zone and carried to the center red line. There, he found Backstrom with a return pass as Backstrom was crossing the blue line down the right wing wall. Backstrom stopped at the far hash marks in the right wing circle and fed the puck back to John Carlson at the right point. Carlson returned the puck to Backstrom, who stepped up into the circle and rifled a shot that snuck through Fleury’s pads and crawled across the goal line to make it a 4-2 game. The Caps went on to win 5-2. As for Kuznetsov, he had a goal and an assist, five shots on goal, a hit, a blocked shot, and he won five of seven draws.
Game to Forget… December 23, 2019. ‘Twas the day before the day before Christmas and down on the ice, the trip to Boston for the Caps was not very nice. No one gets off the hook for this stinker in Boston, the last game before the Christmas holiday. Boston scored four first period goals, two even strength and two power play goals, added a shorthanded goal early in the second to make it 5-0, and then coasted to a 7-3 win. It was a forgettable evening for everyone in a white jersey, including Evgeny Kuznetsov, who finished with no points, one shot on goal, a minor penalty (a power play on which the Bruins scored), and splitting eight draws. It was the second of two minus-3 efforts for Kuznetsov on the season, the only one he suffered on the road.
Folks in Capitals Nation might be forever spoiled by his 32-point postseason (in 24 games) in the 2018 Stanley Cup run. But the fact is that his points per postseason game have dropped in each of the last two seasons – six points in the seven-game loss to Carolina in 2019 (0.86 points per game) and five points in eight games this past postseason (0.63 points per game, his lowest since 2016, 0.17 points per game). Nevertheless, Kuznetsov was tied for second on the team in postseason points (five, with Alex Ovechkin), one behind John Carlson. Only one of those five points, however, was recorded at even strength. Kuznetsov had points in four of the eight games, of which the Caps won one. They were also 1-3 in games in which he did not record a point.
Kuznetsov is now three years into an eight-year/$62.4 million contract, and with this past season, his modified no-movement clause kicked in. Through the 2021-2022 season he may submit a 15-team no-trade list. For now, he is a part of what the Caps want, and frankly need to build on if they are to extend their window of competitiveness. At age 28, he is in the prime years of his expected production, and he has the skill to make good on that expectation. He will be an important element in whatever success the Caps have in the near term.
In the end…
Evgeny Kuznetsov possesses the sort of sublime talent that can bring fans out of their seats and fill a night’s worth of highlights regularly. Few in the NHL have his combination of mobility, speed, stickhandling, and shooting. The confounding part of his game is the inconsistency with which those skills are expressed, and more, that there seems to be a slow bleed in his production over the past couple of years. This past season was particularly frustrating in that he was a dominant contributor over the first 40 or so games, but then he went largely dark in the latter stages of the season. It just isn’t the sort of performance that the Caps can tolerate and still remain competitive. He is just too important to the team, and that is a lesson that needs to be hammered again and again.
Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images North America