Evgeny Kuznetsov returns to play today after missing the season’s first three games to suspension. Kuznetsov tested positive for cocaine in May during the World Championship tournament.
Since then, Kuznetsov has kept a relatively low profile, avoiding social media and limiting his interactions with the media. He just hasn’t had many good things to talk about lately, but now he finally has a chance to change the conversation.
The conversation right now isn’t pleasant. I’ll spare you the moralizing about drug use, but it’s important to note that Kuznetsov’s problems aren’t purely or even mostly off-ice. Despite scoring 72 points last season, his on-ice performance left a lot to be desired. For all his talents at offense, Kuznetsov struggled on the rest of the ice, putting up abysmal defensive and overall stats.
According to Evolving-Hockey, out of 222 forwards who played more than 1000 minutes last season, Kuznetsov ranked 164th in wins-above-replacement (WAR), lowest among the Caps. Using Natural Stat Tricks’s model for expected goals, opponents earned 3.0 expected goals per hour against Kuznetsov, the most among all full-time NHL forwards. (The Caps earned 2.4 expected goals per hour with Kuznetsov, so the Caps’ share of total expected goals was barely over 40 percent.)
Those defensive struggles have been a team-wide problem for the Caps lately, but Kuznetsov has been at its epicenter. We saw it particularly when Kuznetsov and Ovechkin played together, a pairing that was terrific on attack and a mess everywhere else. Kuznetsov seemed unengaged in play without the puck, and it hurt the team. Hockeyviz’s impact diagram does a good job of illustrating his impact.
While the Caps do well on offense (the red blob at top), it doesn’t make up for all trouble at the other end of the ice (the bigger red blob at bottom). Opponents get 17 percent more offense against the Caps than league average.
But the early returns for the 2019-20 Caps have shown a dramatic improvement to team defense, and easing Kuznetsov back into play with third-line assignments seems like the best possible way to set new patterns for his behavior. This is a new start — Kuznetsov’s chance to again become the player he once was and to finally become the leader he is expected and paid to be.
Kuznetsov’s contract has him locked in through 2025 at a payday just below $8 million, a large sum and long term for a player who was in RFA status when he signed. But Kuznetsov played hardball in the summer of 2017, using the threat of leaving North America for more negotiation leverage. The deal was signed, and the Caps won the Cup one year later thanks in part to Kuznetsov’s MVP-caliber play. Eight million dollars a year seemed like a good deal then, but a lot has changed in 16 months.
“I think he’s up there with the all-around top-five players in the league,” Oshie said of Kuznetsov last fall. “He just doesn’t get the recognition for some reason.”
That quote seems absurd now, whereas, looking back, Kuznetsov’s response just seems insightful:
Making good decisions as a professional hockey player on and off the ice hasn’t been Kuznetsov’s forte lately, but now is his chance to turn it around.
In many ways, Kuznetsov is everything I want hockey to be: fun above all else — a wide-smiling invitation to new fans who would otherwise be put off by the sour-faced gatekeepers that hold the sport back. Kuznetsov is the best quote in the league. You put him below the faceoff dots and put the puck on his stick and watch the show. That’s enough to make Kuznetsov a superstar and a fan favorite, but it doesn’t mean he’s a particularly good teammate or a team leader.
And I think he can still become that. I’m rooting for him.
Headline photo: Elizabeth Kong
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