The Washington Capitals’ center of controversy returns to the lineup on Oct. 8 against the Dallas Stars at Capital One Arena. Evgeny Kuznetsov re-enters the system after a three-game suspension to start the season. The Capitals need Kuznetsov to make headlines on the ice – not off the ice.
The Kuznetsov Kerfuffle
There is no reason to be hyperbolic about a hypothetical situation that sees the Capitals losing one of their superstars. Kuznetsov is not going anywhere. He is still a big part of the team. However, rookies are always looking for cracks in the armor. One area of weakness for Washington might be Kuznetsov’s play.
During the preseason, the center only owned two assists throughout that six-match stretch. In the avenging contest against the Carolina Hurricanes on Sept. 21, he tallied the worst five-on-five shot attempt percentage (30.4 percent) on the team. It is clear his team suffered when he did not play his best. The boys in red (white and blue) saw themselves out attempted 47-35 at even strength during that same contest. The head-to-head against Carolina also exposed deficits within his defense. Not only was his offense lacking, his defense was lacking as well, with poor net protection on Janne Kuokkanen’s late goal. Two silly penalties for stick infractions added to a lackluster preseason. If fans want to witness the bird celebration on the regular, Kuznetsov needs to sharpen his skill in all zones.
Go Big or Go Home
The fact that Kuznetsov needs to develop his all-around play is not new. However, it is not the usual topic of conversation. It is easy to overlook his defensive troubles when his offensive numbers top the charts. For the past four seasons, he finished in the top three for points among Capitals players, including the 2015-16 season where he came in first on the team in points. He has enjoyed increased playing time, correlating to an increase in total goals while the player was on the ice.
Kuznetsov earned a few three-star honors: first star of the week for Oct. 26, 2015, first star of the month for January 2015-16 and first star of the month for January 2016-17. Like his star collection, many of his offensive achievements occurred during the 2015-16 season. Most of his appearances in the top 10 on the league-wide leader boards emanated from that year. He recorded 57 assists and 64 adjusted assists for a fourth-place finish. He compiled 77 points for ninth place and 87 adjusted points for eighth place. His plus-27 rating snagged the sixth spot. However, Kuznetsov’s crowning achievement happened in 2018 when the Capitals won their first Stanley Cup in team history.
Third Time Is Not the Charm
There comes a point when defensive troubles come back to bite you. For the past two seasons, Kuznetsov has seen statistical dips in several major categories. His plus-minus figures have dipped below 10, dropping from a plus-18 rating in 2016-17. His registered hits have fallen from 73 in 2015-16 to 50 in 2017-18 and 46 in 2018-19. His faceoff numbers are failing for a forward, catastrophic for a center: his averages that rested in the 40s have dropped to 38.7% last season. Both his Corsi For % at even strength and Fenwick For % at even strength sat below 50% the past two seasons, indicating a negative impact on the team’s puck control. He needs to step up his game.
Unfortunately, the increases in his game were not desirable growths. His number of giveaways jumped into the 60s. His penalty minutes increased too, registering a career-high 50 PIM last season. His average exceeded 0.60 penalty minutes per game. When embroiled in slumping seasons for the last two years, a third underproductive season is not the answer.
Independently, these statistics do not show the complete picture. However, the cumulative numbers reveal necessary changes must come in the forms of consistency, discipline and increased defense. But at least there is room for improvement. And he needs to improve because there are a lot of player positions affected by the Russian’s return.
Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen
The activation of Kuznetsov does not arrive without disruption, causing waves related to fiscal restraints and roster spot shuffling. Since he carries a $7.8 million salary cap, and currently confiscates about $7.6 million, many other players shoulder the monetary burden. To clear cap space, defensemen Martin Fehervary, Jonas Siegenthaler and forward Travis Boyd waffle between wearing the Capitals red sweater and sporting the Hershey Bears (AHL) uniform. All three have talents worthy of the Washington jersey, as evidenced by strong preliminary showings in the preseason. Fehervary managed 5 shots on goal, 11 hits, 5 blocks, and a plus-three rating in four games. Siegenthaler produced 3 shots on goal, 11 hits and 12 blocks. In four of his five games, he topped 20 minutes time on ice. Boyd recorded two goals in four games and registered 65% in faceoffs against the Hurricanes on Sept. 21.
The Capitals recently reassigned defenseman Christian Djoos and goaltender Pheonix Copley to the team team’s AHL affiliate, as well.
Those who have already secured a sweater for the near future – center Nic Dowd, right wing Garnet Hathaway and left wing Brendan Leipsic – are affected by the return, as well. Kuznetsov’s homecoming jumbles their roster positions and the three Capitals now jockey for bottom-line permanency. Forwards Lars Eller and Chandler Stephenson might move to lower lines, too. The realignment is expected and welcomed. Right now, with the Russian’s offensive output, the lineup changes are positive. However, if the day comes that the balance tips toward the negative, there are many players standing in line to steal his spot.
Learn the Name Brett Leason
One apprentice learning the ways of the big league is Brett Leason. He was a part of the several quality forwards drafted by the Capitals during the 2019 NHL Entry Draft. First-round pick Connor McMichael and third-round pick Aliaksei Protas both made their mark during the preseason before being returned to juniors. On Sept. 16 against the Chicago Blackhawks, McMichael tallied one assist and Protas picked up three points. Leason starts this season with the Hershey Bears, but not before the second-round pick made his case on the big stage.
During preseason this year, the 20-year-old rookie scored his first goal on Sept. 21, intercepting a pass from teammate Liam O’Brien and beating Swedish netminder Anton Forsberg from close range. He also recorded an assist during the St. Louis Blues game on Sept. 18, when he had the honor of playing between Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin.
The promotion to first-line duties was well deserved. The right wing scored 36 goals and 53 assists in 55 games for the Prince Albert Raiders (WHL) last season, including a 30-game point streak to start the year and a WHL championship. Those numbers indicate his untapped potential that will serve the Capitals well. The 6-foot-4, 210 pound forward has a shot as heavy as his frame and he is strong with good balance to control the puck. And when he controls the puck, the Capitals can breathe easier because his keen vision and fancy hands make him a formidable player. If Leason can improve his two-way game, there is a more immediate spot left open by Brett Connolly that needs to be filled.
As the rookies helped the Capitals to a 5-1 record, it shows us that the young players can pick up the mantle from the older ones. Kuznetsov, and other notables on the Capitals, need to live up to their names in the 2019-20 season.