Saturday, September 17, 2022

Washington Capitals 2022-2023 Previews -- Forwards: Evgeny Kuznetsov

Evgeny Kuznetsov

“I think it's real easy to be famous these days; it's not real easy to sustain success.”
-- Jerry Jeff Walker

Some years back Evgeny Kuznetsov seemed to be on the cusp of assuming a place among the elite forwards in the NHL.  Over a four-year period, from 2015-2016 through 2018-2019, he topped 20 goals three times, recorded more than 50 assists three times, and posted more than 70 points three times, posting a per-82 scoring average over the four seasons of 22-52-74, plus-14.

But then, things went off the rails.  It started with a suspension in September 2019 by the league for “inappropriate conduct” related to substance abuse that led to an earlier  four-year suspension by the IIHF from international play.  Kuznetsov came out strong after serving his three-game NHL penalty, posting points in six of his first seven games (3-4-7) and going 16-26-42 in his first 42 games.  He faded thereafter, going 3-7-10 in his last 21 games, a span interrupted by an upper body injury that cost him three games.

The following season he started with a goal and an assist in his first four games, but then he was sidelined for eight games for COVID-related issues.  He returned to play six games, and then he went on the shelf once more with an upper body injury.  He battled COVID once more in May and finished the season a disappointing 9-20-29 in just 41 games. Kuznetsov was damaged goods openly spoken of as a player who might be traded to another club.  He might have been but for the $7.8 million cap hit that still had four years to run at the time. 

But he enjoyed a renaissance season last year, going 24-54-78 in 79 games.  The 24 goals were three short of his career high (27 in 2017-2018), his 54 assists were third-highest of his career, and his 78 points were five short of the 83 points he recorded in 2017-2018.  He tied a personal best in power play goals, the eight he recorded tying his mark in 2018-2019, and his 27 power play points were three short of his career high of 30 in 2017-2018.

Odd Kuznetsov Fact… Nicklas Backstrom is recognized as one of the elite playmakers of this generation, but since Evgeny Kuznetsov came into the league in 2013-2014, he averaged 1.51 assists per 60 minutes, while Backstrom averaged 1.28 assists per 60 minutes.  And over that span, among all NHL centers appearing in at least 100 games, only four centers averaged more assists per 60 minutes – Connor McDavid (1.83), Robert Thomas (1.79), and Ryan Getzlaf (1.54).  In case you are wondering, Sidney Crosby is fifth on that list (1.50).

Fearless’ Take… It might not surprise anyone that the Caps were 16-1-1 when Kuznetsov posted multi-point games, but it does illustrate how the stars need to show up.  The important number there might be the “18,” almost a quarter of Kuznetsov’s game total from last year (79). The Caps were 35-14-6 I the 55 games in which he recorded at least one point.  Then there was his expanded penalty killing role.  He logged 88:37 in total shorthanded ice time in 2021-2022 (1:07 per game). Compare that to the total of 30:34 he logged over his first eight seasons combined. It paid off with three shorthanded goals (he had two over his first eight seasons) and the first two shorthanded assists of his career.

Cheerless’ Take… That magical postseason in 2018 when he went 12-20-32, plus-12, over 24 games in the Caps’ Stanley Cup run seems like a long time ago.  Maybe because since then he played in a total of 24 games over four postseasons and went 6-10-16, half of his production from that 2018 postseason.  Then there was the matter of ice time.  If Kuznetsov logged a lot (needed to take it because the Caps were behind and needed scoring), it didn’t turn out well.  The Caps were 6-3-5 in the 14 games in which he skated 22:30 or more.  At the other end, they were 15-4-0 when Kuznetsov skated 18 minutes or less.

Potential Milestones to Reach in 2022-2023

  • 600 career games (he has 599)
  • 500 career points (496)
  • 400 career assists (343)

The Big Question… Was 2021-2022 the beginning of a mid-career productive run for Kuznetsov or a one-off?

Naturally Caps fans hope that the answer to this question lies in the former, the start of a productive run of seasons for a player entering his tenth NHL season.  There will be added pressure on Kuznetsov to start the season on a good footing with a third of the Caps’ top-six forwards starting the season in post-surgery rehabilitation.  And do watch how he gets out of the gate.  In 2015-2016, when he finished with 77 points, he was 8-18-26 in his first 22 games.  In 2017-2018, when he posted a career high 83 points, he started 12-27-39 in his first 39 games and didn’t go more than two straight games without a point.  In 2018-2019, when he recorded 72 points, he was 15-39-54 in his first 39 games, again not going more than two straight games without a point.

There is also the matter of his penalty killing role.  That might be an area in which Kuznetsov’s responsibilities might carry over, at least until Tom Wilson returns to the lineup and perhaps gets some game action under his belt.  In the meantime, Connor Brown averaged two minutes or more in shorthanded ice time in four of his seven seasons to date and never less than 1:50 in any of his six full seasons, so one might not expect an expanded role for Kuznetsov in this area and could see it reduced in the second half of the season.  What he might lose on the penalty kill, he might make up in part on the power play.  With Nicklas Backstrom’s status for this season uncertain, Kuznetsov will assume the role of trigger man on the man advantage.  And, while he was second among Caps forwards in power play ice time last season (3:44 per game), it was just over a minute less than what Alex Ovechkin logged (4:45).  Perhaps Kuznetsov will squeeze just a bit more time out of the power play. At least until others  (Dylan Strome, perhaps) can establish their reliability in that role.  In any case Kuznetsov should not lack for opportunities to sustain or perhaps even improve upon last year’s numbers.

In the end…

Let’s face it.  If Evgeny Kuznetsov, 2021-2022 version, is the player the Caps get this season, they should stand a good chance of qualifying for a postseason berth, even if Nicklas Backstrom misses all of the regular season.  If the 2020-2021 version is what the Caps get, they can book tee times for April now.  This is not an instance of an Alex Ovechkin’s importance, whose production is perhaps more important to the Caps reaching the postseason, because Ovechkin’s consistency has generated expectations that his production should continue at or near the pace he set in recent years.  There is enough uncertainty in Kuznetsov’s recent history to give Caps fans pause.  How well he can sustain last season’s return to productive play could be the biggest factor in the Caps reaching the postseason.

Projection: 78 games, 24-58-82, plus-12

Washington Capitals 2022-2023 Previews -- Forwards: Axel Jonsson-Fjallby

Axel Jonsson-Fjallby

“It is never too late to be who you might have been.”
— George Eliot

Axel Jonsson-Fjallby is beginning his seventh season under the Washington Capitals organizational umbrella.  He started his climb up the Capitals’ developmental ladder when he was selected in the fifth round (147th overall) in the 2016 Entry Draft.  Two more seasons in Sweden and three seasons split between Sweden and the Hershey Bears of the AHL served as preparation for last season, when he split time between the Bears and the Capitals.

It was an odd season for Jonsson-Fjallby, who started it by being placed on waivers by the Caps on October 3rd, hoping he would clear so that he could be re-assigned to Hershey, but he was claimed by the Buffalo Sabres the following day.  And then, things got strange.  Despite the Sabres wanting to give the youngster a shot in the late pre-season, he did not dress for the Sabres, a victim of visa issues.  Just six days after claiming him on waivers, the Sabres placed him back on the waiver list.  The Caps re-claimed Jonsson-Fjallby the following day, and he was back where he started, then re-assigned to Hershey.

After going 3-4-7 in nine games with the Bears, he was recalled to the big club where he made his NHL debut on November 8th.  He was something of a good luck charm at the start, the Caps going 6-0-1 in his first seven games as a Capital (he was 0-1-1, plus-1).  He was returned to Hershey shortly thereafter,  the beginning of a cycle of recalls and reassignments that saw him spend 44 games with the Bears (16-18-34, minus-2) and 23 with the Caps (2-2-4, even) in 2021-2022.

Odd Jonsson-Fjallby Fact… Jonsson-Fjallby did not get a lot of exposure on home ice.  Of the 23 games he played for the Caps, only eight of them were played before the hometown fans.

Fearless’ Take… Despite his having a productive 44 games in Hershey in 2021-2022 (16-18-34), Jonsson-Fjallby is not likely to make his living as a top-line offensive contributor.  He might provide some occasional pop, but his path would seem to be more the two-way or defense-oriented game.  In that regard, his brief tour with the Caps had its encouraging aspects.  Four points in 23 games is not bad for a fourth liner getting 11 minutes a game in his debut season.  His on-ice goal differential at even strength was “even,” and he was on ice for only seven even strength goals against.  He also averaged 42 seconds of shorthanded ice time per game, which might not sound like a lot, but only Beck Malenstyn averaged more among rookie forwards (44 seconds per game).

Cheerless’ Take… That whole “good luck charm” thing didn’t last all that long, cuz.  After the Caps went 6-0-1 in his first seven games, they were 8-7-1 in the last 16 games he played.  There is only so much influence a rookie fourth liner who isn’t a big offensive producer can have on outcomes. 

Potential Milestones to Reach in 2022-2023

Jonsson-Fjallby has not yet played enough games to think in terms of career milestones.

The Big Question… Will Axel Jonsson-Fjallby be getting a regular turn in the lineup by season’s end?

This is a question that has several paths to an answer in the affirmative, at least in theory (there is a practical consideration we will get to).  And that starts with Jonsson-Fjallby seeming to be the next iteration of early-career Carl Hagelin, a bottom-six forward who can provide offense from time to time (remember, Hagelin posted more than 30 points in five of his first seven NHL seasons) but who might be of greatest value on the defensive side of the puck.  First, if Hagelin’s return from a serious eye injury is delayed or derailed, it could create an opening for Jonsson-Fjallby.  Along these lines, there would seem to be a decent likelihood that Hagelin could still be on the sidelines when the seasons starts, creating that opening.

Second, Hagelin could play himself out of the lineup with less than desired production.  This could give Jonsson-Fjallby an opportunity to step up and claim the fourth line left wing position for himself, provided he can offer a reliable level of production. 

Third, and this could be tied to the previous item, if Hagelin’s level of production is not what the Caps feel necessary for a stretch run or a postseason appearance, or if a deal emerges that would require multiple assets going the other way, does he become trade bait at the trading deadline as a part of a larger deal?  If so, then Jonsson-Fjallby could be the default choice to move into that slot with an opportunity to prove himself.

Those are the theoretical paths to a more regular role in the lineup, but there is also the matter of Jonsson-Fjallby not being waiver-exempt.  Exposing him to waivers – and remember, he was claimed once before – would be risky and could leave the Caps ultimately without a roster-ready player to take over that role, should he be exposed and claimed.  Hagelin is an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season, and at 34 years of age, the Caps might be disinclined to offer him an extension unless it was at a heavily discounted cost.  Jonsson-Fjallby is an arbitration-eligible restricted free agent after this season. 

In the end…

The Caps have had some success in drafting players out of Swedish leagues over the years – Bengt Gustafsson (Farjestad BK in 1978), Nicklas Backstrom (Brynas IF in 2006), Marcus Johansson (Farjestad BK in 2009), Christian Djoos (Brynas IF Jr. in 2012), Andre Burakovsky (Malmo in 2013), Jakub Vrana (Linkoping HC in 2014), Martin Fehervary (IK Oskarshamn in 2018).  Axel Jonsson-Fjallby is the first player drafted out of Djurgardens IF to play for the Caps.  His path to the Caps has been long since then and is, as yet, incomplete, his having just the 23 games last year on his NHL resume.  He will turn 25 years old in February, and even at that point there would be no assurances that he would occupy, or would ever occupy, a regular spot in the lineup.  But the 23 games he played last year did offer some indications of the type of player he could be, and while that player would not be one with eye-popping stats, it could be one that fills a role the club would find valuable.  In that regard, it certainly is not too late for him to demonstrate he can be that player.

Projection: 30 games, 5-8-13, plus-2