ARLINGTON, V.A. — Washington Capitals forward Evgeny Kuznetsov leans against the wall at MedStar Capitals Iceplex, hands in his pockets. As usual, he’s smiling, his composure calm as he opens up about his journey.
He’s honest, collected and transparent, not hiding anything — and not trying to.
“You know, I’m a very social person and emotional person. I need to see people, you know?” Kuznetsov explained. “I need to see people smile and myself to see inside of me. How I smile, you know, it’s very important to me.”
Growing up in Chelyabinsk, Russia, Kuznetsov found his love of the game early on. He played soccer a bit in the summers, but when winter came around, he would play hockey, walking to the hockey school two minutes away.
“I was kind of always a hockey kid,” Kuznetsov explained.
His journey to the NHL was a memorable one. A high-tier prospect, there was always promise for Kuznetsov, who went in the first round to the Capitals in 2013. He was expected to make waves in the NHL and has with All-Star play and multiple 70-plus point campaigns over his career.
He rose to even more prominence as the “Bird Man,” the ecstatic, elite center who exorcised the Capitals’ demons in 2018 with an OT winner to eliminate the Pittsburgh Penguins and send Washington the Eastern Conference Finals. Then, he finished that playoff run with a championship ring, while leading with 32 points in 24 games to help the Capitals hoist their first-ever Stanley Cup.
Things started to take a turn, though, in the summer of 2019. Kuznetsov tested positive for cocaine, resulting in a three-game suspension and a four-year ban from international play. He came back for a strong season otherwise in 2019-20, posting 19 goals and 53 points through the 63-game shortened season.
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However, 2020-21 would be a nosedive. The Russian posted just nine goals and 29 points through 41 games and tested positive for COVID-19 twice. He was also scratched for “disciplinary reasons” toward the end of the regular season. He returned for three playoff games against the Boston Bruins, going scoreless and posting a +/- of minus-1.
“That s*** bothers me a lot,” Kuznetsov said of testing positive twice. “You know, in the summer, I was able to train well, without you know, like, I can breathe well, so I can do all this stuff, so that’s helped me a lot. I didn’t say I had the worst year, you know, in my head because I knew how hard it was for me last year.”
The 29-year-old was the subject of critics and scrutiny in the offseason. He was no stranger to the speculation, though he said there was no truth in it. Still, he did take note of the trade rumors and what was being said about him and his performance.
“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.”
That only motivated Kuznetsov to work harder, though. He not only wanted to improve for himself but for his teammates as well. He geared up the training in the offseason, getting on the ice as much as he could and working to “get the smile back” in his game, as he mentioned at the beginning of the year. Head coach Peter Laviolette took note of No. 92’s improvement, saying that he came into camp in great shape.
“There’s been ups and downs with Kuzy and I,” Laviolette said. “He’ll tell you the same thing, but it’s always been honest and it’s always been direct. The way he is playing right now is a credit to him. Just him. He put in the time this summer, he was on the ice all the time, he came to camp in great shape and he started the season the right way.”
A wild bird appears! pic.twitter.com/VfZPFkz8Yu
— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) November 15, 2021
His teammates have also noticed a different player.
“I think he is in really good shape. I think his mindset is in the right direction and I think what happened the last couple years… he has kind of bounced back and he’s in the right direction,” captain and linemate Alex Ovechkin noted. “It is good for us, good for him and it is kind of fun to play with him. Fun to see his smile and fun to see what he can do on the ice.”
So far this season, Kuznetsov has been on an absolute roll. He has eight goals and 28 points through 24 games, just one point away from tying his season total from all of last year. He ranks fifth in the league in scoring right now.
“This year was a big opportunity and big challenge for me and you know we all play for each other it’s always easy to be successful individually when the team plays well,” Kuznetsov added. “I just want to enjoy the game, you know? We play a lot, we train a lot. You always on the ice, you always with the puck and if you enjoy what you do, it’s [not] hard to come back the next day.”
He noted that this year is the hardest year for him yet amid high expectations, a myriad of injuries and a difficult schedule through the first quarter of the season.
“Mentally and physically, it’s pretty hard because the pressure is on us. It doesn’t matter how many guys we miss,” Kuznetsov said. “It’s always, you know, we raise the standard pretty high. And we got to be there because you know, myself I can have two, three pretty good games and then one game, I can be invisible, right? So but, you know, I always worry about those games. And I want to do all these high standards where I always perform.”
This year, Kuznetsov has also worked to change his role and expand his responsibilities on the ice. He’s not only a solid top-line center and puck carrier that helps drive that unit with Ovechkin, but he’s also logging significant time on the penalty kill.
Despite the on-ice changes, he’s still holding on to his fun-loving personality and sense of humor. From a sweet tooth who will “eat everything” to an avid music fan, he believes that positivity is fundamental for his love of the game and team bonding.
“I’m just not afraid to speak, you know? I always said what I’m thinking,” Kuznetsov grinned. “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.”
Looking back at his life, fatherhood has been the highlight. He said that it was the ultimate growing experience and one that has changed his life and driven him to go out and rebound.
“After my wife delivered a couple of kids, it’s hard. You know, kids is everything… I’m spending more time home. [My daughter] she’s like six and a half she learned some bad words from me, you know?” he joked. “It’s cool. And that stuff, like, keeps me motivated, motivate me a lot and everything else just normal. The kids is special.”
When asked if he would rewrite the past if he could go back in time, the answer was simple, instantaneous.
“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? And I’ve been through some tough moments and 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.”