Capitals Stay Contenders with a Refocused Evgeny Kuznetsov

The whispers have settled around Evgeny Kuznetsov. The Washington Capitals did not trade their center during the offseason as some fans and analysts anticipated, so it’s now time to focus on what to expect from the star this upcoming year. The franchise is hoping that Kuznetsov’s magical 2017-18 campaign wasn’t an anomaly but rather a bar that must be met or challenged. If not, the trade rumors may become more of a transaction. Instead of uncertainty, Washington should expect an All-Star-caliber year from the Russian.

The Capitals’ Evgeny Kuznetsov Conundrum

There’s no doubt that Kuznetsov is a special talent, but inconsistencies and off-ice issues have lessened the center’s value. After a messy 2021 season highlighted by fewer points, contracting COVID twice and being disciplined by head coach Peter Laviolette, Kuznetsov’s performance was negatively evaluated by general manager Brian MacLellan.

Evgeny Kuznetsov Washington Capitals
Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

“We needed more from that position from that amount of salary that we expend on him,” MacLellan explained. “If he can’t play at his highest ability, we’re not going to be a good team and we’d have to make some other decisions.”

Laviolette added that the center’s inconsistencies had to do with his stints in COVID protocol. “I don’t know if he ever hit the gear or the stride he wanted to or had the impact on the game like he wanted to.”

The subsequent analysis and the brash reaction to move on from Kuznetsov have settled to a meager simmer. Now it’s time to look at how he can help himself and the team succeed.

The Return of the old Kuznetsov—on the ice, at least

In 2017-18, Kuznetsov recorded career highs in goals (27) and points (83), and also his second-most assists in a season (56). Most importantly, his playoff performance in route to lifting the Stanley Cup was impressive. The center posted 32 points in 24 games.

His full-season pace totals for 2019-20 and 2020-21 can be viewed as scared samples. Kuznetsov missed a total of 21 games out of a possible 125 between the shortened seasons. These absences led to fewer minutes and fewer power play appearances. In 2019, he was handed a three-game suspension from the NHL and a four-year suspension by the IIHF stemming from a positive cocaine test. Adding the two COVID protocol violations and being disciplined by Laviolette, the off-ice Kuznetsov needs to stay in the past.                

The on-ice Kuznetsov needs to get back to form. The center’s decline has been publicized because it was out of the ordinary considering his level of play, and perhaps the exaggerated analysis is due to surprise. Here’s a look at Kuznetsov’s points and points-per-game since the 2017-18 season.

SeasonPointsGames NHL RankCenter RankPoints-per-gameNHL RankCenter Rank
Evgeny Kuznetsov’s points and points-per-game decline the last four seasons

The business aspect of these numbers is what calls for worry. Kuznetsov is the 17th highest-paid center in the league at an average annual value of $7.8 million. Top-two-line money demands better production and reliability.

Center Depth

Besides the hole on the left side of the defense, the Capitals also have a center depth issue. With an average age of 31 between the four lines, Kuznetsov is actually the youngest center on the roster at 29—and they all eat up $21.25 million against the cap. Nicklas Backstrom, 33, though still consistent, has shown his age at times. Lars Eller, 32, missed 12 games in 2021, and injuries tend to linger with players sur-30. Nic Dowd played in all 56 games last season, and though he served a vital part for the Capitals reaching the playoffs, he’s still not a top-two center.

With growing concern at the position, Connor McMichael could be recalled from Washington’s American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, the Hershey Bears, at some point in the upcoming season. However, it would be wise for the coaching staff and management to not rush the promotion from a development standpoint. McMichael, 20, played in one game for the Capitals during the 2020-21 season. At Hershey, he skated in 33 games and posted 27 points and a plus-6 rating in his first year, earning a spot on the AHL All-Rookie Team.

Eller and Dowd will return to third- and fourth-line roles. That leaves the question of whether Backstrom or Kuznetsov should skate on the top line.   

The Right Fit

What to watch for most this season is the possibility of Kuznetsov and Anthony Mantha meshing. The winger, since being acquired by Washington in April, did not skate with Kuznetsov. Of his 10 points as a Capital, regular-season and playoffs, none included the centre. There’s room for potential with this pairing, and both may need each other to ignite their respective careers at important moments. Mantha, now with some games and a full training camp with Washington on his resume, has something to prove after the blockbuster deal. Kuznetsov needs to be rejuvenated and skate with motivation. The rawness of this combination can benefit both players.

Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals
Evgeny Kuznetsov celebrates with Alex Ovechkin (Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images)

However, for Kuznetsov’s sake, the easy solution is to be placed on the top line with Alexander Ovechkin and Tom Wilson, where he has proven to be productive and comfortable in years past. Backstrom can skate with anybody, and considering the offense will be just as dangerous this year, an early-season strategy for Laviolette should be figuring out where Kuznetsov can shine the most. If the center plays like he’s capable of doing, the Capitals are a serious Stanley Cup contender once again.

Evgeny Kuznetsov’s Season Outlook

Expect Kuznetsov to return to form this season and at an All-Star level. First, he needs to take care of his matters outside the rink. If those disciplinary distractions are archived, then he can focus on his expert free-flowing playmaking abilities. Second, with more time on the ice and the power play, and the correct pairings, his point total will inevitably increase. In the last two full seasons, 2017-2019, he averaged 24 goals, 53 assists, and 77 points. This upcoming full season will be no different. Watch for Kuznetsov to have a 20-plus-goal/70-plus-point campaign and the Capitals to have a more successful year.