"Big results require big ambitions.”
We are ten years out from the year in which Evgeny Kuznetsov was drafted by the Washington Capitals. Taken 26th overall in that draft – a rather good one it turns out -- Kuznetsov has outperformed his draft by quite a bit. He ranks 13th in goals scored (120), fourth in assists (269), and sixth in points (389). His plus-61 rating ranks sixth in his draft class. All this while tied for 18th in games played (479, tied with former teammate Radko Gudas).
But something is off about Kuznetsov. After posting career highs in goals (27) and points (83) in 2017-2018, a season he capped with 12 goals, 20 assists (to lead the league) and 32 points (also a league-leading total) in the Caps’ Stanley Cup playoff run, he dropped to 21 goals and 72 points in 2018-2019, and again to 19 goals and 52 points in last year’s abbreviated season.
2019-2020 was an odd season for Kuznetsov, who got off to a fine start with 11 goals and 28 points in his first 25 games, along with a plus-9 rating. It was hardly a coincidence that the Caps went 17-4-4 in those 25 games. Then, as they say, things took a turn. He went 1-5-6, minus-5, over his next 11 games, although his sluggish performance was not yet reflected in the Caps record, the team going 8-3-0 over those 11 games.
Kuznetsov had a brief rebound, going 4-4-8, plus-1, in six games from December 28th through January 8th, but the team was just 3-3-0. His performance deteriorated from there, going 3-7-10, minus-7, over his last 21 games of the regular season, while the team was going 10-8-3 in its limp to the finish.
Odd Kuznetsov Fact… Evgeny Kuznetsov tied for 139th in the league in power play assists last season with six. That was his lowest total of power play assists since he had two in 17 games in 2013-2014, his first NHL season.
Odd Kuznetsov Fact II… None of Kuznetsov’s 19 goals last season were game-winners, the first time he went a season without one since his first year with the Caps in 2013-2014 (1`7 games).
For his confounding finish to the regular season, Kuznetsov had a decent postseason. Not a “2018” level of performance, but he did finish with three goals in eight games (tied for second on the team), five points (tied for second), posted four power play points (tied for first), recorded 20 shots on goal (second), and had a 15.0 shooting percentage (second among Caps recording at least five shots on goal).
The thing that kind of jumps up off the score sheet with Kuznetsov is that he stopped shooting the puck, or at least getting shots on goal. He had 61 shots on goal in his first 24 games (2.54 per game), over which he had 11 goals (18.0 shooting percentage). But over his last 39 games he had only 68 shots on goal (1.74 per game), a reduction of about a third on a per-game basis. It was not even a case of shot attempts not getting to the net. Over those first 24 games he had nine shots blocked and 14 misses, 0.96 shot attempts per game not getting to the net. Over those last 39 games he had seven attempts blocked and 22 misses, just 0.74 attempts per game not getting to the net.
Potential Milestones to Reach in 2020-2021:
- 500 career NHL games played (he currently has 479)
- 300 career assists (269)
- 400 career points (389)
- Top-30 in games played for the Capitals (needs 12 games to pass Jason Chimera for 30th place)
- Top-20 in goals scored as a Capital (needs ten to pass Alan Haworth 129) for 20th place; if T.J. Oshie (128 goals with the Caps) gets there first, he would need 14 goals this season to pass Brooks Laich (133))
- 50-point seasons in team history (he has five; a sixth would tie him with Dave Christian and Michal Pivonka for seventh place)
The Big Question… Can Evgeny Kuznetsov find the spark that made him such an offensive force in 2017-2018?
There is just no delicate way of putting this. Alex Ovechkin is the star, Nicklas Backstrom is the perennial nominee for the Oscar as best supporting actor, but the Caps just are not going to win a second Stanley Cup if Evgeny Kuznetsov has a 2020-2021 season that looks like his two most recent seasons. Kuznetsov was on a career arc earlier in his career that appeared to put him in position to take a place among the truly elite centers in the game. Even a blip in his progress in 2016-2017 (19-40-59 in 82 games after going 20-57-77 in 82 games the previous year) was followed by his career year in 2017-2018 (27-56-83 in 79 games and that memorable 12-20-32 scoring run in 24 playoff games).
At 28 years of age, Kuznetsov is in the chronological prime of his career. He is a good, if not uncommonly prolific goal scorer (averaging about a quarter goal per game over his career), but he is a gifted playmaker and elusive skater who can create on the fly like few in the league can. It suggests a player who, while having averaged 0.81 points per game over his seven-year career, has it in him to be closer to a point-per-game player (three times in the past five seasons he averaged more than 0.90 points per game).
In the end…
The Washington Capitals have a considerable investment in Evgeny Kuznetsov. He has five more years at a $7.8 million cap hit per year on his contract, which also includes a modified no-trade clause (source: capfriendly.com). And if one looks at the cohort of centers with a cap hit between $7.0 and $8.5 million, he is in a very competitive mix with 11 other players. Relative to those other centers, particularly in the under-30 group of them (Kuznetsov is 28 years old), his performance, at least his recent performance, does not make him stand out in the crowd.
But he can stand out in the crowd, and not just because he has a natural flair that makes him an entertaining player. He has the whole spectrum of skills – a deceptively nasty shot, uncommon vision, superior skating skills in open ice and in close quarters, excellent puckhandling skills, soft hands to make deft passes. The extent to which he can assemble these talents into something resembling his 2017-2018 season will be one of the most important factors influencing just how far the Caps can go this season.
Projection: 55 games, 18-34-52, plus-3
Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images