Photo: Amanda Bowen
Evgeny Kuznetsov put himself on the map as a star in the NHL during the regular season. Building off of a solid playoff performance in the spring of 2015, the Caps’ Russian center led the Caps with 77 points, posting 20 goals and 57 assists in 82 games. Entering the playoffs, Kuznetsov was expected to lead a second line that would give the Caps a top-six as feared and productive as they’ve had in the playoffs during the Alex Ovechkin era.
Through 11 games, that hasn’t happened. Kuznetsov has posted just one goal and one assist. I’m not going to make a definitive narrative about Kuznetsov as a player based off of these 11 playoff games. To do so would be both shortsighted and disingenuous. After all, Kuznetsov was great in the playoffs last year. Further, the sample of games in the playoffs is generally so small that it’s dangerous to build a narrative off of, as a few good games can result in a total reversal of any playoff-based narrative.
While keeping in mind that an 11-game sample isn’t enough for any grand takeaways on Kuznetsov as a player, the fact remains that his production (goals, points) has fallen off a cliff at the time when the Caps need him the most.
But here’s the thing: Kuznetsov has actually been a more dangerous player during the playoffs than he was during the regular season. The only thing keeping this from showing up on the score sheet is that he and his linemates haven’t been able to bury their chances. Call it bad puck luck, a cold streak, or whatever you want, but the bottom line is Kuznetsov has been doing everything right in the playoffs but the often-fickle results haven’t yet fallen in line with the rock-solid process.
Comparing regular season numbers to the playoffs, let’s take a look at the numbers to support this.
The first thing I looked at was the pace of play with Kuznetsov on the ice. I was thinking that perhaps one reason for the drop in production was that teams play tighter and more defensively in the playoffs and perhaps the rate at which shot attempts were attempted by both teams had decreased.
|Shot Attempts for + Against/60||109.3||125.3|
Nope. The rate of shot attempts with Kuznetsov on the ice is actually higher in the playoffs than the regular season, so it’s not as if tighter-checking games have slowed the pace of play and contributed to his lack of production.
But maybe the Caps rate of shot attempts has taken a dip with Kuznetsov on the ice during the playoffs.
|Shot Attempts For/60||58.5||68.6|
This isn’t it either. The Caps are actually shooting the puck more in the playoffs when Kuznetsov is skating.
The next place to look is shot quality. Maybe defenses are playing tougher against Kuznetsov and it’s showing up in the quality of chances he and his linemates are getting.
|Scoring Chances For/60||31.5||36.7|
Another big nope here. The rate at which the Caps are getting scoring chances with Kuznetsov on the ice has gone up in the playoffs.
Next up, I looked at Kuznetsov’s individual shot attempt and scoring chance rates. This was done with the thought that maybe, while the team was doing fine with him on the ice, Kuznetsov was less involved in the play because defenses were specifically focusing on him more.
|Individual Shot Attempts/60||11.8||20.2|
|Individual Scoring Chances/60||7.2||14.3|
This is a huge no. Kuznetsov has nearly doubled the rate at which he’s shooting the puck and getting scoring chances in the playoffs compared to the regular season.
One of the last places to look is at Kuznetsov’s individual shooting percentage as well as the team’s shooting percentage with him on the ice
|On-ice Shooting %||10.2||1.2|
|Individual Shooting %||7.7||0.0|
It looks like we’ve found our culprit. The team can’t get the puck to go in when Kuznetsov is on the ice at 5-on-5. Despite creating a larger number of chances that are of higher quality than the regular season, the Caps and Kuznetsov are snakebit when he’s on the ice so far in the 2016 playoffs.
Kuznetsov and his teammates have their backs against the proverbial wall. If they don’t win two straight games against the Penguins their season is over. If Kuznetsov doesn’t find himself on the score sheet, he’ll likely shoulder a big portion of the blame for “not showing up” in the playoffs.
Don’t believe the narrative. Kuznetsov has become a more dangerous player since the playoffs started and, if the team can stay alive, it’s only a matter of time before he shows up on the score sheet.
All stats from War on Ice and Corsica
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