Evgeny Kuznetsov had one of the worst defensive seasons in recent NHL history, and it still wasn’t a bad season overall, because he’s a very special boy and we love him very much.
|18.8||time on ice per game|
|47.9||5-on-5 shot-attempt percentage, adjusted|
|44.4||5-on-5 expected goal percentage, adjusted|
|58.5||5-on-5 goal percentage, adjusted|
About this visualization: This series of charts made by Micah Blake McCurdy of hockeyviz.com shows various metrics for the player over the course of the season. A short description of each chart:
I have assembled for you a diagram of Kuznetsov’s play based on his location on the ice. At right is the attacking zone, where Kuznetsov has the puck.
And at left is a portion of Hieronymus Bosch’s depiction of hell.
Evgeny Kuznetsov’s 2018-19 season was one of the worst defensive seasons by a forward in the last decade.
That’s bombastic. I’ll make the case.
Every dot below is a forward’s season, dating back to 2010. The higher the dot is, the more high-danger chances that opponents get. No one is worse than Kuznetsov.
And here’s a similar mapping for expected goals, using Natural Stat Trick’s reckoning. I’ve annotated some more interesting names at the extremes.
I include offense in these diagrams because I don’t want to blow this out of proportion. Evgeny Kuznetsov is a gifted offensive player, and his creativity in the attacking zone goes a long way to forgiving his sins elsewhere. We need to consider both, and we need to consider them in proportion to one another.
Last year, TJ Oshie said this about Kuznetsov:
I think he’s up there with the all-around top-five players in the league. He just doesn’t get the recognition for some reason.
Like a tasty tiramisu, this quote has layers upon delicious layers. Oshie is right. Kuznetsov’s playmaking is bonkers, and it feels like he’s going to notch 50 assists every season for the next million years. I can totally imagine him as being a top-five offensive player in the NHL –– but “all-around”? Not even close. Kuznetsov is a liability without the puck, which has been true for his entire career and has only been masked by having excellent linemates at times. The “lack of recognition” Oshie cites is just people noticing that opponents get tons of shot attempts when Kuznetsov’s on the ice, and those attempts come from dangerous spots — with lots of them on the rush.
What exactly Kuznetsov did so poorly on defense requires a conversation of X‘s and O‘s that I’m probably not best at articulating, though I did try it way back in November when I advocated for un-pairing him from Alex Ovechkin. In general, I think Kuznetsov is so focused on making an opportunistic counterattack while his teammates are forechecking that he does not meaningfully apply defensive pressure in the neutral zone. He’s too still and too removed from the play while opponents are breaking out that he often finds it passing him by.
All of which makes Kuznetsov’s famous reply to Oshie’s comment kind of unfortunate:
I don’t give a shit about that.
Kuznetsov’s defensive give-a-shit levels were already suspect before he went on the record about it, but, welp, here we are.
That’s already a lot to chew on, but I feel like I could write a novel about Kuznetsov’s play. Pretty much everything else would be glowing praise. He remained productive despite some unfavorable shooting percentages and a concussion, he and Nicklas Backstrom are machines at getting into formation during the power play, and at least once a week he makes a play that makes me question what is physically possible in this sport.
I feel like I’m writing myself into a corner here. There’s this party line about a player like Kuznetsov that I sort of detest, but I have to entertain it a bit: on any given night, he could be the best player in the world — if only he wanted to be.
That’s a cliché — one with more than a tincture of xenophobia — but I think it applies better to Kuznetsov than some folks who used to get painted with that brush. If Kuznetsov becomes a reliable two-way forward, he will take over games, and then he will take over the team, and then he will take over the league.
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“You know, that’s what hockey should be for, for fun. Fans like it.”
Okay, that’s over. Back to reality.
Ugh there’s so much more I want to talk about. How much of Washington’s “overperformance” vs shot quality do you attribute to Kuznetsov’s reality distortion field (PDO)? What players should be paired with Kuznetsov to help make him more reliable? And is there a better quote in the entire NHL than this guy?
Read more: Japers Rink
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