Capitals’ Evgeny Kuznetsov On Course For Career Year

Let’s talk about Evgeny Kuznetsov. He’s 6-foot-2, boasts impressive footspeed, and can exercise masterful control over the puck. The Russian is an asset on the power play and penalty kill, has registered 440 points (135 goals, 305 assists) in 539 NHL games, and has won silverware for club and country.

Not only is Kuznetsov an elite centre, but he’s also capable of making his $7.8 million cap hit look like a bargain. However, life in the NHL hasn’t always been easy on the Washington Capitals’ second superstar Russian.

Kuznetsov contracted Covid-19 twice last season – and it showed. He struggled to stay mentally and physically sharp while drifting in and out of quarantine, producing offense at the lowest rate since 2014-15, his sophomore year. There was also talk – albeit often unserious – that he could be traded after turning up late to a team event. Instead, he was scratched for a game and that was that.

Evgeny Kuznetsov Washington Capitals
Evgeny Kuznetsov is in his ninth season with the Washington Capitals. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Thankfully for the Capitals, though, noise regarding Kuznetsov’s place in the organisation hasn’t distracted him. It’s spurred him on.

Through 19 games to start 2021-22, the 29-year-old has potted six goals and 16 assists. He’s plus-9 on the year, has registered nine points in his last eight appearances, and is averaging a career-high 21:46 of ice time per game.

Related: Capitals’ Top Line Among NHL’s Best

The Capitals have come to rely on Kuznetsov more than usual in Nicklas Backstrom’s absence, with the Russian teaming up with Alex Ovechkin and Tom Wilson on Washington’s top line. Thus far, it has been one of the league’s most effective units.

But what’s behind Kuznetsov’s resurgence and will it continue?

Evgeny Kuznetsov’s Mercurial Talent

Capitals head coach Peter Laviolette has been lavishing Kuznetsov with praise of late.

“He’s in a really good spot,” Laviolette said. “To me, it’s focus, it’s his commitment to the team, it’s him wanting to be a guy who can go out there and make a difference.”

Of the 29-year-old’s impact on his linemates, Laviolette added: “To me, right now, he’s playing with speed. He has a high skill level, but he’s attacking the game with speed. His confidence — I’m sure — plays into that. He’s driving play, he’s driving his line. He probably has the puck on his stick more than a lot of players do. Now that he’s in high gear, it makes it really difficult to get the puck back from him.”

Kuznetsov’s newfound zip shows in the numbers. He’s assisted five of Ovechkin’s 12 strikes and added apples to two of Wilson’s five tallies. Unsurprisingly, he leads the Capitals in assists (16) and ranks sixth in the NHL for the metric as a result.

Kuznetsov’s assist haul includes this beautiful set-up play against the Buffalo Sabres.

The Russian’s offensive pedigree is also evident in his shooting statistics. He’s netted six goals from an expected goal (xG) haul of 6.2. In other words, he’s scoring slightly beneath the rate he should be when the quality of his chances is taken into account.

To place that into context, Conor Sheary has five goals from an xG clip of 3.9, meaning it would be fair to expect his shooting to regress to the mean. The opposite is true of Kuznetsov, who leads Capitals forwards in shifts (458) to start the campaign.

The bottom line is this: Kuznetsov has re-entered the zone, is happier as a result, and his teammates have noticed.

“He’s having more fun,” Wilson said of his centreman. “He’s a kid that loved the game growing up and, I don’t know, last year maybe he just lost it a little. He’s played a long time in the league; it’s tough to be on every night. He can be a superstar when he wants to be. This year, he’s demanding the puck, he’s having a ton of fun at the rink. He’s back to his old self. When he’s on, it’s pretty fun to watch. He’s just really bought in. He’s demanding more from himself, and he’s fun to play with when he’s playing like that.”

Dmitry Orlov agreed: “For sure, he’s looked good this season. Last year maybe wasn’t great, but he’s responding the right way”.

Will 2021-22 Be Kuznetsov’s Career Year?

Kuznetsov is on pace for a career-high of 98 points this season. If he continues to produce at his current clip, he’ll net 27 goals and register 71 assists, blasting past the 27 goals and 56 assists he notched in 2017-18.

As noted by Laviolette, Kuznetsov is back to his play-driving best – which shows up in his Corsi (56.5%) and Fenwick (58.2%) scores. To cut through the jargon, the Capitals dominate the puck while he is on the ice, which is especially relevant given he loses more faceoffs than he wins.

Kuzentsov demonstrated the well-roundedness of his game against the Calgary Flames by dispatching an unassisted short-handed goal.

Most importantly, though, the analytics match the eye test for Kuznetsov. He’s making effective plays, isn’t taking shifts off, and is fired up to succeed for his teammates.

“It’s nice to wake up every day and be able to breathe nice and be able to push yourself in the practice 100 percent and breathing for us, the wind, is very important,” Kuznetsov said before the season. “Physically I am in very good shape right now and you can judge my game.”

Put differently, Kuznetsov is enjoying himself again, has had the pressure of trade talk lifted from his shoulders, and is reaping the rewards on the ice.

Concerning for the rest of the Metropolitan Division, the Russian shows no signs of slowing down. If he keeps it up, 2021-22 will be a season to remember for Kuznetsov.

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