Evgeny Kuznetsov was the Washington Capitals’ leading scorer during their Stanley Cup championship run in 2018 and looked prime to soar into superstardom in subsequent years. Instead, Kuznetsov’s effectiveness on the ice has waned with higher expectations and a bigger contract. A lack of discipline derailed Kuznetsov’s first season under new coach Peter Laviolette, which saw him contract COVID-19 twice and miss 17 out of 61 games in the regular season and playoffs combined. Kuznetsov was suspended by the team for disciplinary reasons, and eventually, landed in offseason trade rumors as the Capitals reportedly became tired of the center’s antics.
But now, after not finding a trade partner, Kuznetsov is back. And after spending the entire summer stateside, Kuznetsov says he is completely healthy and ready to use last year as motivation.
“Finally healthy, I was able to train, push myself 100-percent from all the medical stuff,” Kuznetsov said about his offseason to Capitals media after a recent Training Camp skate. “You can judge my game now and I’m very excited about that.”
When Kuznetsov tested positive for COVID-19 the first time, he had a particularly rough bout with the virus. He even said at one point that he was just happy to be alive and that he wouldn’t wish the symptoms on anybody.
“I don’t want to look for excuses,” Kuznetsov said of his health last season. “It’s nice to be able to wake up every day and be able to breathe nice and be able to push yourself at practice 100-percent. What I’m saying by ‘breathe’ is that for us the ‘wind’ is very important. Physically, I’m in very good shape right now and you can judge my game right now for sure.”
Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan is in agreement with the Russian forward and acknowledges that the team needs a bounceback year from him.
“I’ve had a few conversations with him, he seems to be in a good spot,” MacLellan said. “I like where he’s at mentally, physically. He’s come here in really good shape. He’s added some good weight strength-wise, looks to be excited to play this season. I think we’re all looking for a good response from him and a good year. The expectation is that he’ll have a good year this year.”
Similarly, Capitals head coach Peter Laviolette commented on how Kuznetsov looks to start Training Camp and the opportunity Kuzy has this season. Laviolette did his best to put Kuznetsov into scoring positions last season, making him one of the most sheltered players in modern NHL history.
“Evgeny and I have had about as honest a conversation as you can have since I’ve been here,” Laviolette said. “He’s in a really good spot right now. He looks extremely fit and healthy and ready to play. I think his mind is in a really good spot and we’ll be counting on him. He’s really going to get an opportunity to take hold and show what he can do. He’s proven to be a high-end player, a real impactful player and we’ll be counting on that.”
Those words from Caps brass ring loudly as there were certain stages of last season where it felt like this might be the last we saw of Kuznetsov in a Capitals uniform. That feeling wasn’t helped by offseason trade rumors as sources indicated that the Caps were ready to move on. Evgeny obviously didn’t love hearing any of that but also does not want to just forget it.
“That was great actually,” Kuznetsov said about his tumultuous 2020-21 season and offseason. “One of the years you want to forget but at the same time, you always want to remember. It’s like when you lose the game in the playoffs, lose game seven and you sit in the locker room and you feel that pain. Next year you go, you don’t want to feel that pain again. So you can use that as a motivation, you can use that as a target, as a goal, don’t feel that again.
“I’m happy that I’m here and I’m mentally here, that’s what is most important to me,” Kuznetsov continued. “It’s not just that I’m here to get paid or I’m here to play hockey and go back home and enjoy my life. For me, it was very important to mentally be here, and like I said what I felt last year and that’s a good memory in my head. I like it that way. When everything good in your life, you’re not moving, you’re not growing, you’re not getting better.”
𝙡𝙞𝙠𝙚 𝙖 𝙛𝙞𝙣𝙚 𝙬𝙞𝙣𝙚 pic.twitter.com/YXjFUzHJvn
— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) September 23, 2021
The Capitals will need Kuznetsov to be at his best right from the jump as they announced during the week that Nicklas Backstrom is week-to-week as Nick continues to rehab a nagging hip injury.
“I guess we’ll see. The goal is for me to get my smile back in the game,” Kuznetsov said about stepping up in Backstrom’s absence. “If I don’t smile in the game that means something is bad, right? We don’t play good. For me, it was always important to see guys happy, to see smiles during the game. Even if you lose the game, you come back in the locker room you see it. Man, we did everything we could, we tried, it just didn’t go our way. We come back next day, we happy, we work. But when you always in negative mood, you not happy it doesn’t make you better, it’s not easy for you to compete.”
When asked what he missed most about pre-pandemic life as a hockey player, Kuznetsov quickly responded with the fans.
“That first warmup when fans will be there, that’s a special feeling,” he said. “Because when you go there and there is no people, you feel like there is no one to perform for and it turns from hockey, exciting game to just a job. It’s very tough to play when it’s empty stadium, it’s very tough. We need people we’re that team that feed off the crowd, but it all starts with our game, we have to play game.”
Headline photo: Cara Bahniuk/RMNB
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