WASHINGTON, D.C. — The “Bird Man” celebration returned to D.C. as Evgeny Kuznetsov netted his first goal of the 2021-22 campaign in the Washington Capitals’ win over the Colorado Avalanche on Tuesday. In the same way the famous celebration returned with a vengeance, so has he.
Talking to Kuznetsov, he’s still his fun-loving self, jokes at the ready and a grin on his face. However, there’s something different about Kuznetsov the player this season; there’s more focus, more drive and an extra step in his game, all of which have been evident since the start of camp as he tries to put a tough 2020-21 behind him.
“It was one of the years you want to forget, but at the same time, you want to remember,” Kuznetsov said at the start of training camp. “It is like when you lose the game in the playoffs or any Game 7, you sit in the locker room and feel that pain. And next year, you don’t want to feel that pain again, so you can use that as motivation, you can use that as a target, as a goal. For me, that wasn’t nice.
“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.”
The 29-year-old is an All-Star caliber player; before last year, he had at least 50 points in five straight seasons, including three 70-plus point performances. Over the last couple of seasons years, though, things started to unravel for the start. A positive cocaine test prior to the 2019-20 campaign saw Kuznetsov suspended for three games and banned from international competition for four years.
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Then in 2020-21, things took a turn for the worse for Kuznetsov. He had just nine goals and a career-low 29 points through 41 games in a shortened season that saw him test positive for COVID-19 twice and end up scratched due to disciplinary reasons. That poor play resulted in trade rumors surrounding Kuznetsov over the summer, but general manager Brian MacLellan shut down any speculation after the 2021 NHL Draft.
However, there would be high aspirations and expectations for Kuznetsov returning to D.C. His main goal was to “get the smile back” in his game.
“Just remember it is a business, right? It is not whatever guy wants to do or people or fans, it’s a business and we have to adjust to that. I am happy that I am here and I’m mentally here,” Kuznetsov said. “That is what is more important to me. It’s not just that I’m here to get paid or I’m to play hockey and go home and enjoy my life. For me, it was very important to mentally be here.”
Since then, he hasn’t disappointed. The Russian is moving the puck with confidence, making crafty plays and showcasing his speed, creativity, hockey IQ and playmaking ability on the top line with Alex Ovechkin and Tom Wilson. Through four preseason games, he recorded a goal and five points. That offense carried over into the regular campaign; he opened the year with three assists in the Capitals’ 5-1 victory over New York, and then added two goals and an assist in Washington’s 6-3 win over Colorado.
He has six points in his first three games, tied for the team lead with captain Alex Ovechkin (4G, 2A). And while Kuznetsov said it’s rewarding to find the scoresheet, that’s not his focus for this season.
“It’s just three games, right? Of course, I’m happy the way we play, I’m happy with the personal performance, but at the end of the day, it’s still two points,” Kuznetsov said. “It doesn’t matter how many points I’m gonna get if we’re not going to make the playoff and not going to be successful there. So that’s why it’s very important to have a great team game.”
That point production, though, will be vital for Washington, who is without top center Nicklas Backstrom as he rehabilitates a hip injury and remains on the LTIR.
So far, his standout performance has also rubbed off on his teammates, who have noticed a rejuvenated No. 92 that resembles the All-Star version of himself that led the Capitals to the Stanley Cup in 2018.
“He’s having fun, I think he’s enjoying the game,” Wilson said. “I think, you know, when I first met him and early on his career, it was just a joy to be at the rink and he was so fun to be around. I think you’re starting to see that again a little bit. You know, it is a job and day in and day out, 82 games, it can be a grind at times. It’s the best job in the world, I love it, but I think he’s just kind of rekindled that joy for the game.”
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Head coach Peter Laviolette agreed, saying that he’s seen a lot more from No. 92 to open the season and that the “honest” dynamic between the two has resulted in a positive relationship.
“There’s been ups and downs with Kuzy and I,” Laviolette noted. “He’ll tell you the same thing, but it’s always been honest and it’s always been direct. The way he’s 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.”
That transparency, trust and accountability have, in turn, made all the difference for Kuznetsov, who will look to continue living up to his full potential — something that the Capitals need to see this season, especially with Backstrom on the LTIR and the Stanley Cup window open for only so much longer.
“For me, it’s very important to have the puck and to play with the puck. If I don’t have the puck, I’m trying to go get that puck,” Kuznetsov said. “That confidence always goes from the coaches and teammates, right? And I feel like I have a great relationship with the coaches and teammates and that always gives you a lot of confidence when you can be creative… we build the trust between each other and that’s how individually we can grow up and we can play better.”