ARLINGTON, V.A. — Upon returning to D.C. in September for the 2021-22 campaign, Evgeny Kuznetsov was a man on a mission for the Washington Capitals. Fast forward to breakdown day, and although he is disappointed with how his team’s year ended, he admits that he did in fact accomplish one of his main objectives for this season: he found the smile in his game again.
The fun-loving top-6 center was a major question mark entering the season. A lackluster showing in 2020-21 that saw him put up career-low numbers, test positive for COVID-19 twice and also sit a game for disciplinary reasons led to a damaged reputation, criticism and trade speculation. That didn’t sit well with No. 92, who was balancing family, training and his own desire to bounce back.
“Of course, I was in the news a lot. I was hoping somebody will say something truthful, you know, that was not even close to anything,” Kuznetsov said. “But that’s a hockey life, right? You never know what’s going to happen tomorrow. So you got to be ready anyway, especially when you have a couple kids.”
Ultimately, though, Kuznetsov took a lot away from those dark moments and decided to fuel that into turning things around.
“If you tell me if I can come back and change something, I will say no. That’s unbelievable experience, which I believe I can share it to my kids. I can share it later when I’m gonna be older. I’ve seen some s*** in my life, you know?” Kuznetsov noted. “I’ve been through some tough moments. You know, some good, bad. I believe that a lot of people have to go through some moments in their life so they can learn, they can get better. And I’m just grateful for everything.”
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Coming into training camp, Kuznetsov went to work with head coach Peter Laviolette. He was eager to show he could be the same player from a few years ago. The one who put up All-Star caliber point totals and exorcised the Capitals’ playoff demons just a few years back. And, with Nicklas Backstrom on the long-term injured reserve to open the year, Kuznetsov would have a major void to fill.
He did just that, injecting skill and speed back into his game while showcasing his stickhandling ability, stellar passing and versatile play. Not only did he lead the charge on the top line with Alex Ovechkin, but he was also a catalyst on the power play and operated on the penalty kill, where he also did a lot of damage offensively.
“I learn the new things. The confidence comes from the coach,” Kuznetsov said attributing a lot of that success to Laviolette. “If coach wants to give you confidence, he’ll help you. Peter really help me this year. I want to say thanks for that.”
Not only did Kuznetsov earn trust at both ends of the ice and take on more responsibility, but his play earned him a trip to the 2022 NHL All-Star Weekend. And ultimately, numerous point streaks and standout play on a game-to-game basis led to him dishing 24 goals and 54 assists for 78 points in 79 games for the Capitals. He then added five points in six games for Washington in the first round against Florida. Kuznetsov also had a career-high 208 shots, and his .99 points-per-game was the highest of his career since 2017-18.
“I’m pretty confident and I like the way the season went. In terms of the points, maybe want a little more, but at the same time, I was focusing on different things,” Kuznetsov said of his year. “It’s not up to me to judge how i play. I need some time to think about and what I have to change in terms of the offseason. I think we had a pretty good year.”
Kuznetsov’s teammates and the front office also took notice of his improvement, and believe that he made a major impact, especially with Washington facing adversity at different points over the course of the campaign.
“That’s what we absolutely needed… super proud of him after the kind of the year he had before. You know, people being down on him, some people wanted him to get traded. I mean, he’s another guy, you can’t replace what Kuzy does,” T.J. Oshie said. “You can’t replace his skating, his speed, his ability to create offense. Not only that, he’s obviously a fun guy to be around, always laughing, always smiling.”
“I think he had a great year from start to finish. I thought he played well in the playoffs, too,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. “He’s killing penalties now, he’s taken some faceoffs for us. He had a great year for us, really happy with what he brought to the team.”
But beyond production, there was something more in Kuznetsov’s game. Kuznetsov was joking around again and having fun on and off the ice for the Capitals. He stole the show with stick twirls, slo-mo shootout moves and his vintage bird celebrations. And in the end, that made all the difference for Kuznetsov.
“You know, I’m a very social person and emotional person. I need to see people, you know?” Kuznetsov said earlier in the year. “I need to see people smile and myself to see inside of me. How I smile, you know, it’s very important to me.
“I’m just not afraid to speak, you know? I always said what I’m thinking,” Kuznetsov added with a grin. “And I believe that if people around me can handle my jokes, that means they always enjoy the life too you know? Some people may take personal. They don’t like me but that’s not my business. I want to surround myself around people that kind of see the same way as me.”
Heading into next year, Washington is excited to run it back with the same core, and Kuznetsov is ready to be a big part of that, especially with Backstrom still dealing with hip issues and facing big decisions.
“He have a great year. I think for us, the core and the experienced guys, we’ve been with this team. We all understand our level. So you just have to continue growing and continue to work,” captain Alex Ovechkin said of his longtime Capitals teammate and countrymate. “I’m sure next year is going to be much better.”
In the end, his teammates also hope to see the now 30-year-old forward take on a bigger role with his classic “Kuzy” personality and be one of the leaders in the room and on the ice,
“I hope he keeps making strides forward because he’s a guy that can put up some big points for us,” Oshie added. “He’s going to be the go-to guy moving forward.”