Earlier this season, Washington Capitals forward Evgeny Kuznetsov didn’t look like himself. He shied away from entering the zone and taking on defenders, and didn’t seem to come into the zone with the energy he’s had since his rookie campaign. Now, he’s bursting into the zone with a head full of steam, oozing the poise and aplomb he had after defying expectations and finishing as one of the NHL’s top performers in 2015-16.
After starting this season with two goals and seven points through 16 games, Kuznetsov has found his touch again and has eight points in his last eight games. Of late, he has looked much stronger on the ice, and there are many factors that have contributed to this improvement.
Getting Confidence Back
The 24-year-old started the season struggling, and head coach Barry Trotz attributed a lot of his problems to a lack of confidence. When he went through a slump to end the 2015-16 campaign, it appeared to carry into the playoffs, and then continued straight into this season.
To start the year, he wasn’t playing the same way he had been. One of his biggest threats is the ability to make the most of his time. However, the opposition was limiting his time with the puck, and instead of pushing through it and challenging the backcheck, he would give up on the puck, seemingly lacking the confidence that he could outwork them.
Now there is a different edge in Kuznetsov’s game. He is pushing hard and fighting against the defense, instead of giving up and forfeiting the play altogether. Not only is he incorporating more competition and strength in his game, but he’s also more confident and picks up speed coming into the offensive zone.
“Kuzy’s game has got more substance to it right now in the areas that he’s really driving the puck,” Trotz told the Washington Post of his latest hot streak. “He’s really forcing defenders to get on their heels because he’s testing them wide, and he’s testing them in the interior to force them to honor everything, and he’s getting to those hard places.”
A Perfect Combination
Another reason that the Russian winger is finding his touch is because his linemate is, as well. After both Kuznetsov and veteran Justin Williams both experienced a slump to start the 2016-17 campaign, Trotz decided to put them together. They had some chemistry last season, and perhaps putting two struggling forwards would ignite a spark.
He was right. In their last 10 games each, both have been putting up outstanding performances, combining for 15 points. The reason they work well together lies in their ability: While Kuznetsov can find perfect passing lanes and make plays on the fly, Williams can crash the net, finding loose pucks, deflections and tip-ins, while also keeping his stick down to keep up with Kuznetsov’s rapid passes.
[miptheme_quote author=”Evgeny Kuznetsov, courtesy Washington Post” style=”text-center”]The more we play, the more we feeling better. I think when things not going well for the whole team, we kind of get better and better and get closer. And you can see, we’re playing much better right now. [/miptheme_quote]
These two players are complementing each other well and are proving to be quite a dynamic duo. Though they’re considered a second-line pairing, they are fast, dangerous and can make teams pay if given too much space.
Focused on Playmaking
The fact that Kuznetsov isn’t scoring may be concerning to some, but he has been more focused on what he does best: playmaking. He is putting up plenty of primary assists, and one of the reasons for the lack of goal-scoring stems in his unselfish play.
Kuznetsov works with a “pass-first” mentality, and even when he’s given the perfect scoring opportunities, he will make a pass if he believes it has a better chance of going in the net. One example of this came in Washington’s win over the Vancouver Canucks on Dec. 11.
Despite having a wide open shot, Kuznetsov decided to pass to Williams, giving him an empty net to shoot the puck in. This was unexpected to many, and that element of surprise guaranteed another goal for a red-hot Williams.
However, there would be no harm in Kuznetsov shooting the puck more. He is an excellent shooter with a lot of strength and ability, and if he shot the puck a bit more, his production would increase. With the ability to be a solid all-around player, Kuznetsov needs to explore all areas of his ability, even if he hasn’t had enough practice. He carries plenty of confidence and that can boil over into other areas of his game.
Though it may have taken time for Kuznetsov to build up the confidence and ability he needs to score, he is ready to return and reclaim his title among the NHL’s elite centers.
Sammi Silber covers the Capitals beat for The Hockey Writers and is an NHL contributor with Sporting News. She has also contributed to USA TODAY College, Huffington Post, FanSided and the Nation Network. Silber has written four books and recently worked on graphics for the film, The California Golden Seals Movie.