Photo: Bruce Bennett
Tuesday night against the Carolina Hurricanes, Evgeny Kuznetsov made some nice sauce, registering his league-leading 37th primary assist of the season on Alex Ovechkin’s OTGWG. The point was Kuznetsov’s 70th on the year, making him the 12th player in Caps history to register 20 goals and 50 assists in a season. Kuznetsov’s 70 points also leads the Capitals.
If the Chelyabinsk native ends the year on top, he would be the first Capital not named Ovechkin or Backstrom to lead the team in scoring since 2003-04 when Robert Lang put up 70 points. Kuznetsov’s dominant play this season is a far cry from his initial struggles during parts of his first two seasons in the league.
Earlier this week, Capitals head coach Barry Trotz spoke to Igor Rabiner of Sports-Express about Kuznetsov’s growth as a player, and he revealed his master plan for turning Kuzy into the next Pavel Datsyuk.
Did this breakthrough season for Evgeny Kuznetsov come as a surprise to you?
Barry Trotz: We were looking for a second-line center last season. We tried Kuznetsov and Burakovsky, in order to groom these players for the position. Right away, we came to conclusion that it is simply too much to try to work on such transformation for two wingers at the same time. So we made our choice in favor of Kuznetsov.
One of the reasons for the choice was the fact that Kuzy had tried to do that before, albeit to a small degree. On top of that, his skating is incredible, which is also very important for a center, and his game was a bit more mature. First 35-40 games of the last season, Evgeny went hot and cold – there were some great games, but he was lacking consistency.
I believe that at the time his game was affected by the main difference between the NHL and the KHL: the rink size. Here, in North America, you are not as protected when you have a puck. There are more turnovers and takeaways because there is less space. There are more players right next to you, and you are forced to fight for the puck all the time.
It is easier to find open space in the KHL, but in the NHL you have to fight for your space. That’s exactly what Kuznetsov’s problem was: to understand that he needs to be more physical, otherwise he’ll keep losing the puck. But even if you turn the puck over, but try to get it back instead of switching off, there is a good chance you’ll get it back and resume your offense. That’s what he needed to improve, and at some point he realized that and started doing it.
I know he has become good friends with Pavel Datsyuk. When we were in Detroit, Pavel asked me how Kuznetsov was doing. I told him: “I need him to play more like Datsyuk.” He then asked: “In which zone?” – “The way you stay engaged, don’t switch off under any circumstances, even when you lose the puck.” As far as I know he talked to Kuzy afterwards.
Kuzy – he is a very smart player and a person as well. He understood what Pavel told him, and now he plays exactly how I wanted him to play then, and that’s how I want him to play now as well. The new aspects of his game allow him to utilize his terrific skating even better.
When was that key moment when you started believing in Kuznetsov?
Barry Trotz: His final transformation occurred during last year’s playoffs. It started during the regular season, but the playoffs is when it became obvious. In a situation when you have even less space than during the regular season, he raised his game to a new level. And he carried his playoff game into this regular season, where he has been outstanding.
How did it occur to you to try Kuznetsov as a lone forward during overtime in 3-on-3 format?
Barry Trotz: His ability to hold on to the puck, his puck control and speed – all of those were among the factors. And I like how it’s working out.
Are you planning on playing Kuznetsov and Ovechkin together more often, and not just on power play?
Barry Trotz: Maybe. For now we try to do that once in a while for a short period of time. I tried that option in a limited fashion last season, as well as this one. But that is not something I want to do permanently.
Kuzy and Backy are somewhat different players. Kuzy holds on to the puck much longer, while Backy tries to deliver it to his teammates faster, in one touch. Kuznetsov likes to keep the puck longer, including carrying it through the neutral zone. Meanwhile, Ovi likes to get the puck in neutral as well, which allows him to do things one-on-one. But both centers are very smart players, and they can adapt to different linemates.
As one of the Team Canada coaches for the upcoming World Cup, are you concerned about Ovechkin and Kuznetsov playing together?
Barry Trotz: Yes. These two guys, when they are together, are dangerous regardless of the tournament. And when a team has a whole group of such players, such as Datsyuk… Russia is a very talented team!
Do you allow your Russian Four to speak Russian in the locker room?
Barry Trotz: Yes. They are very proud of their roots, and I have absolutely nothing against that. Just like the Swedes who can speak Swedish in the room. That’s wonderful. By the way, it was our Russians who gave Orpik his nickname Batya!
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