Evgeny Kuznetsov: The Assist Machine

A backward pass behind the net to a teammate. The goaltender still moving towards the post where the puck-handler was skating. An empty net for the pass receiver, and an easy goal for the Washington Capitals.

This is the type of play, seen recently in the Washington Capitals victory over the Nashville Predators, which highlights the passing skill and ability of third-year Capital Evgeny Kuznetsov. It’s not too soon to mention his name with the great setup men in the NHL such as Sidney Crosby, Joe Thornton, and even teammate Nicklas Backstrom.

The left-shooting pivot, selected in the first round of the 2010 NHL Draft by the Washington Capitals, is having a breakout campaign for the boys in red. He played in just 17 regular season games as a rookie. Last campaign, he got into 80 contests and garnered 37 points, 26 of which were assists. This season, Kuznetsov is producing more than a point per game, with 73 total points (20 goals, 53 assists) in 70 games.

Kuznetsov has always been decent at dishing the puck. While lacing up for Traktor Chelyabinsk in the KHL, more than half of his points were assists, going back to his last three seasons in the league.

What we’re seeing this season from Kuznetsov is a whole new level of production, however. As of this post, he is notching 0.76 assists per game. He’s also tied for second in the NHL in the total assists category for the season, with Patrick Kane, and behind only the Ottawa Senators’ Erik Karlsson.

Here is another example of the type of pass for which Kuznetsov has shown a flair this season:

You’ll also see Kuznetsov perform the slap-pass, which has become fairly popular in the NHL. When Kuznetsov performs the move, he seems to be able to fool most of the opposing team into thinking that he will shoot the puck before he passes it to an open teammate.

Kuznetsov can be described as somewhat of a “rink rat” in his love for the game. Much as you’d see a basketball “gym rat” be able to dish the no-look pass based on intuition through his hours and hours in the gym, Kuznetsov seems to have the same type of skill on the ice. To get a better understanding of how Kuznetsov approached the game of hockey growing up, and the Russian players whom he idolized, there is an excellent post by the Capitals’ assist leader in The Player’s Tribune, which you might want to read.

The young Russian has become a real asset for the Capitals this season. His skill in passing the puck has been a large part of the team’s success in what could be termed their best season ever as a franchise. With passers like Kuznetsov and Backstrom feeding snipers like Alexander Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie, the Caps are positioned for a long run through the Stanley Cup Playoffs.