Evgeny Kuznetsov‘s sure been good, eh? He had a hat trick of assists in the opener and four goals in the last three games, chalking up nine points in this young season.
That certainly feels like vindication for those of us in the kuznetsov comeback szn camp, but what if we’re looking at this all wrong?
Washington has taken 197 faceoffs during five-on-five play this season. They break down like this:
And Evgeny Kuznetsov’s faceoffs break down like this:
Of Washington’s 59 defensive zone faceoffs, Evgeny Kuznetsov took seven of them, winning five of them (against Zibanejad, Cirelli, Kadri, Rantanaen, and Monahan).
Only one of those seven faceoffs began a Kuznetsov shift, meaning in only one circumstance across five games did Peter Laviolette say, “oh puck’s in our end? Let’s put Kuzy out there to get it out!” That one case came in the season’s first game, when Kuznetsov came on the ice to lose a draw in his own end to Ryan Strome. Strome and the Rangers got two chances after that draw, and I guess Laviolette had seen enough. Since then, he has not let Kuznetsov start a single shift with a defensive-zone faceoff.
Below is a stack of Micah Black McCurdy’s excellent zone deployment visualizations. Each item shows how often the Capitals skaters got deployed in each zone. I’ve desaturated the non-Kuznetsov rows and circled where you’ll find him in each game.
If you’re interested in going a bit deeper with hockey, I very much recommend a subscription to hockeyviz.
Kuznetsov has become more and more offensively specialized as the season goes on, which suggests that Laviolette is continuing his scheme from last year of leveraging Nic Dowd defensively so that Kuznetsov gets the good shifts. Except now we’ve introduced two new and important complications.
First, Laviolette has added penalty-kill responsibilities to Kuznetsov’s workload. Kuznetsov has played 4.2 minutes of man-down time this season, passing his totals from every season since 2018-19, when Todd had him play 16.7 PK minutes early in the season before abandoning the idea in December.
It’s impractical to make any quantitative assessment of Kuznetsov’s performance in such a tiny sample of a very network-driven game state, except to say that shorthanded goals are good, and Kuznetsov scored one of them.
Second, and this part is the most important, Kuznetsov is totally slaying it.
Nine points through five games, including a big shorthanded goal, one game-winner, one two-goal game, and one hat trick of assists. Sure, Kuznetsov is shooting arouind double his recent shooting percentage (21.1 percent all-situations, up from around 11 percent over the last three seasons), but he’s also generating more events in total.
Kuznetsov has added fifty percent to his individual shot-attempt rate without significantly knocking down his teammates (down about 3.5 shot attempts per hour or 5.5 percent).
And Kuznetsov’s added volume is coming at a much higher quality, more than doubling his individual expected goal rate (i.e. a measurement of how many goals we would predict his offense would create against a league-average goalie).
In each of these measurements, it’s important to keep in mind that Kuznetsov’s individual improvements could be him cannibalizing his teammates. Kuznetsov generally plays with much better shooters (possibly because he’s good at making them better shooters), so it’s not necessarily a net positive for Kuznetsov to be shooting more if it means his teammates are shooting less.
But Kuznetsov has already generated three goals off wristshots within the home-plate area. That’s roughly the same output he had across a sample nine times larger last season.
Which is all to say that Kuznetsov has been given a very advantageous playing context, and within it he’s excelled.
Here’s a player who has had trouble producing consistently, but now the team is sacrificing Nic Dowd so that Kuznetsov can be kept away from tougher assignments. Here’s a player who has had trouble with defensive responsibility, but now he’s getting conspicuous usage on the penalty kill. And while it’s too soon to tell for sure, it looks to me like his defensive responsibilities in neutral-zone play no longer involve applying much pressure.
Kuzy’s interception wasn’t the result of forecheck pressure but still a great read of a telegraphed pass in neutral pic.twitter.com/vvz30XaoRz
— Good Tweet Pete 🌮 (@peterhassett) October 23, 2021
So I’ll just say it: I think the Capitals are still showcasing Evgeny Kuznetsov for a trade. They think they have a troubled asset, and they want to make it (him) look as good as possible so they can trade him for all the same reasons they wanted to back in May. Perhaps what we’re seeing right now is just the player and the team finally working together, making some cold calculations and putting their best feet forward so they can end this relationship with good vibes. Maybe vibes is all the kuzy comeback szn narrative ever was.
Or maybe not.
Maybe Kuznetsov really has turned the page. Maybe the cartoonish offensive specialization is how MacLellan and Laviolette want to foster a positive environment for the player– to get the smile back in his game. Maybe the PK assignments are to instill defensive fundamentals and cooperation with his teammates. Maybe his changing role in neutral-zone assignments will allow Kuznetsov to plan more counterpunches. Maybe what we have seen from the first five games is a brilliant new chapter in Kuznetsov’s career.
(I really hope that’s the case.)
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