I’m going to start with a bummer, but stay with me and I promise it’ll get better.
So, Evgeny Kuznetsov has sort of been a disaster this season. Looking at relative numbers — the percentage-point difference in how the Caps do when he’s on the ice versus on the bench — he’s been arguably the team’s worst full-time forward.
I’m been handwringing about this on the RMNB patreon since Kuznetsov returned from suspension. It’s scary. The team is committed to him through 2024-25, so if he really is this bad, he’s going to hurt the team for a long time.
Except it looks like Todd Reirden may have figured out how to get Kuznetsov playing the right way.
Winning in the NHL comes from the margins. Good teams score 55 percent of the goals in their games (i.e. last year’s Caps) and the bad teams (i.e. last year’s Oilers) score 45 percent. It’s for that reason when a player’s team controls under 40 percent of play during his shifts, we could say he’s below the Mendoza line — a subjective minimum threshold for competitive play.
Evgeny Kuznetsov has been below 40 percent for most of this season. The line graphs below show the five-game trends for the Caps controlling play (shot attempts and expected goals) during Kuznetsov’s shifts.
Up until the end of October, those numbers were unacceptably bad. But — and yes, finally we’re at the but part of this story — there has been a major turnaround since then. In the last five games, Kuznetsov’s on-ice percentages have been well above 50 percent. Consequently, he’s scored seven points in the last five games.
I suspect there are several reasons for this change, but I’ll highlight a big one here. As of the Vancouver game on October 25, Kuznetsov’s been taking most of his shifts with Jakub Vrana and Tom Wilson. Here’s a color-coded comparison of that line versus Kuznetsov’s other common lines this season.
Those three players together have been tremendously successful — not just at controlling underlying play, but also at outscoring their opponents. We’ve seen Tom Wilson record multi-goal games with dramatic overtime winners, and we’ve seen Jakub Vrana score his first ever hat trick. On Saturday, we saw the return of this:
The Kuzy bird forever pic.twitter.com/I9VI4nyGyc
— Ian Oland (@ianoland) November 10, 2019
This would not be the first time Kuznetsov found a pair of wingers that complemented him well. Three years ago, he put together one of the best lines in the NHL with Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson.
The recent success probably isn’t chemistry alone. Both of Kuznetsov’s less successful lines also included Vrana and Wilson. While the synergies are obvious — Wilson is one of the team’s best forechecking forwards; Vrana’s speed in transition is excellent — I don’t think we should discount Kuznetsov just plain-old playing better. Kuznetsov’s faults have always been in his play without the puck, but anecdotal evidence from the last week suggests he’s been more involved lately.
I sure hope that’s the case. Defensive play has been his weakness since the beginning, but his offensive game is still magnificent. Kuznetsov didn’t dominate five-on-five play against the Florida Panthers, for example, but he still got three assist that night. The challenge for him now is to play better without the puck so he can maximize the amount of time he gets to be a wizard in the offensive zone.
All the signs indicate he’s figured this out.
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Headline photo: Elizabeth Kong
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