WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Evgeny Kuznetsov that’s lacing ’em up for the Washington Capitals is a brand-new player — at both ends of the ice. The always-smiling yet lethal forward is a man on a mission, aiming to prove his critics wrong while also expanding his versatility on the ice. He has done just that so far.
Through 12 games to open 2021-22, Kuznetsov has 16 points and has taken charge for Washington as the top-line center. He also ranks fourth in the league in assists (11). Not only that, but he is playing a variety of different roles to kick off the season and has risen to the occasion as the team continues to battle through injuries.
“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,” Alex Ovechkin said of No. 92. “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.”
Not only is the Russian center producing offensively (he just reached the 300-assist mark), he’s making a major impact beyond production. Kuznetsov ranks third among all Capitals with a 50.27 face-off percentage and has already set a new career-high in that department. When it comes to offensive-zone draws, Kuznetsov has led all Washington centers, winning 80.7 percent out of the 138 draws taken there.
His dominant play so far has quietly earned him a spot among the NHL’s top centers, and he’s working to embrace the role of a top two-way forward as well.
It’s a relief for the Capitals, who had high expectations for the 29-year-old entering this year. Kuznetsov’s off-ice issues and struggles with consistency over the last couple of seasons led to trade rumors over the summer, and so far, he’s been able to put that behind him.
“He’s such a smart, cerebral player that he can figure that out without having to get the reps,” Nic Dowd said. “Kuzy’s such a smart player… He’s doing a good job. He’s won some real good face-offs and he’s a smart guy.”
Ultimately, beyond his strong playmaking ability and solid performance in the face-off dot, Kuznetsov has earned the trust of his teammates and head coach Peter Laviolette. It’s earned him more ice time, as well as an opportunity on the penalty kill.
Rewinding to a season ago, the PK was not something that came naturally for Kuznetsov. He averaged just three seconds of ice time last year shorthanded for Washington. Fast forward to now, and Kuznetsov is out there for 1:05 minutes per game, having a blast and actually putting up strong numbers as well.
Kuznetsov leads all Capitals in face-off percentage (63.64) on the penalty kill and not only skates well in the defensive zone but also generates scoring chances while down a man. He has one shorthanded goal and an assist so far this year and isn’t afraid to get crafty or create high-danger chances when the opportunity presents itself.
“Oftentimes, guys that are really smart offensively, they make good penalty killers as well because they can read what the other power plays are trying to do with their movement,” Laviolette explained. “He’s been really good with his details to defense, and he’s done a good job since being there. There’s also that threat where [if] he does get the chance, he can make something happen.”
Even more impressive, he leads all Capitals skaters in face-off percentage (63.64) on the kill.
“I don’t know why you guys think that skill guys can’t kill penalties,” Kuznetsov grinned. “It’s about belief and trust. If they can work with us and teach us, give us the time, we can help play… there’s always the belief that, in my opinion, that every player on our team can play the PK and power play.”
The Capitals will need Kuznetsov continuing to expand his versatility, especially with the team missing three top-6 forwards and needing as much support in front of Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek as possible.
For Kuznetsov, that means not only stepping up and producing but continuing to grow while having fun, too.
“When everything good in your life, you are not moving. you are not growing, you are not getting better,” Kuznetsov added. “It is fun to see everything and I hope in 10 years when I enjoy my life, I will enjoy this time and remember it.”