Washington Capitals centre Evgeny Kuznetsov was a force to be reckoned with last season. He was the team’s leading scorer, an NHL All-Star and once of the best players in the league.
Not to mention, Kuznetsov finished fourth in the league with 57 assists and ninth with 77 points. Because of his performance, the Russian forward often played on the first line between Alex Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie and was considered among the NHL’s elite.
Toward the end of the 2015-16 regular season, Kuznetsov seemed to slow down. He went without a goal for his last twenty games of the year, and only put up two points in the playoffs. Unfortunately for Kuznetsov and the Capitals, the start of 2016-17 paints a similar picture.
Hot Streak Frozen Over
In his last seven games, Kuznetsov has put up just one point, which came in the form of a goal in the team’s 5-1 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes on Nov. 12. He has just two goals and seven points through 16 games this season and seems to still be going through a slump, one that head coach Barry Trotz has noticed since last season.
Trotz provided multiple theories regarding Kuznetsov’s cold streak, one of them stemming back to his KHL-to-NHL transition.
“I think he hit a little bit of a wall last year, and he hasn’t got the confidence back yet, and he’s brought back some of the old habits from year one,” Trotz told CBS Local.
Though Kuznetsov’s struggles are a reason for concern, the Capitals are doing fine without his scoring. They have a 10-4-2 record and are second in the Metropolitan Divison. Nicklas Backstrom leads the team with 11 assists and 15 points and has stood out as the team’s top player so far this year.
Kuznetsov’s game revolves around his ability to make plays on the fly. Once he’s given enough time and space, he will impulsively decide on his next move and do whatever he thinks is best to get the puck in the back of the net. However, some of these possibilities have created multiple concerns for the 24-year-old.
“Sometimes, puck’s not going in,” Kuznetsov told the Washington Post. “Sometimes, I’m just worried about my partner, trying to play for my teammate and kind of a little bit unselfish play, you know. Sometimes, I have a good chance for shooting puck but I try to make another pass.”
What Kuznetsov needs to do is keep going despite the change in pressure. When backcheckers cut off his space and limit his time to do things with the puck, he gives up. However, he needs to power through and get back to the on-the-fly mentality that helped him put up so many points last season.
— Isabelle Khurshudyan (@ikhurshudyan) November 17, 2016
Learning From the Magic Man
Over the summer, Kuznetsov got the opportunity to train with his idol in Pavel Datsyuk. His fellow countrymate put up 918 points in 953 career NHL games and is currently playing in the KHL back in his home country. When training with Datsyuk, Kuznetsov soon learned that he didn’t take a day off, and wanted to have that same mentality.
Now, Trotz encourages Kuznetsov to play like his role model, mainly because he believes it will help him work harder and add more grit to his game.
“I always use the term, ‘Play a little more like Pavel Datsyuk,'” Trotz told the Washington Post. “Pavel Datsyuk has maybe the highest skill level that we’ve seen in this league and up there with anybody in the league, but you wouldn’t know it the way he plays because he plays with sort of that blue-collar mentality. I know there’s a connection between Kuzy and Datsyuk, so I always use that term for visual for him.”
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.