Evgeny Kuznetsov is gifted offensively, but throughout his career, he’s been a liability defensively. That’s why it was news on Wednesday when Kuznetsov got several minutes on the penalty kill against the New Jersey Devils in the Capitals’ second preseason game of the year.
It turns out Kuzy’s shorthanded deployment wasn’t just preseason weirdness, but an informed Peter Laviolette decision. The Capitals head coach made clear in his postgame presser that it’s something the Capitals want to evaluate.
“Oftentimes guys that are really creative, they can read from a penalty kill position what the power play is trying to do and so it is something we are looking at,” Laviolette said. “I think through the course of a long year and never knowing exactly what your lineup is going to be because you don’t know the health and status of everybody through the entire year, it just gives us options. So it’s something that we’re looking at through training camp. Certainly, it’s something we think that he can do so we’re going to take a look at that.”
Kuznetsov ended up with 2:37 of ice time shorthanded on Wednesday night, the second-most among Capitals forwards only to Brian Pinho (3:07).
This is not the first time the Capitals have considered Kuzy on the PK. Before the 2018-19 season, general manager Brian MacLellan told then-Capitals head coach Todd Reirden that he thought Kuznetsov could penalty kill. It’s also something Kuznetsov has wanted to do personally as he spoke about it that year at the NHL’s Media Day.
“Why I want to play on the PK? That way you can be in the game every time,” Kuznetsov said. “You don’t see [the ice] sometimes for five minutes or whatever. At the same time, PK, power play, you’re in the game. I need to be in the game.”
The Capitals would end up experimenting with Kuznetsov on the penalty kill as he played a career-high 16:42 shorthanded in that 2018-19 season. It was a short-lived experiment though as he ended the season with the least amount of PK time among all Capitals centers (even behind someone like Travis Boyd who played in more than twenty fewer games). Kuzy’s PK work that year could be linked to his career-low 38.7-percent win rate in the faceoff dot.
“The biggest thing for me, don’t lose anything,” Kuznetsov said before that season about how he needed to get better in the dot. “I want to be consistent. Of course, I’m going to get stronger on the face-off. If someone going to put me on the PK, they’re not going to give me a lot of time, a lot of opportunities. I only have two, three times maybe, and I have to take it right away. I have to do it like coach said. If not, you’re not going to play on the PK.”
His percentages each season since then haven’t improved much as he posted a 43.3-percent win rate in 2019-20 and a 41.4-percent last season.
If the man who once wrote a college thesis on penalty-killing tactics wants more time on ice shorthanded, winning faceoffs may be the biggest obstacle holding him back.
Headline photo: Elizabeth Kong/RMNB
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