On Saturday we shared a report that Washington Capitals forward Evgeny Kuznetsov has requested a trade. His requests, it’s reported, actually date back several years but are only now more likely to be honored.
Kuznetsov, 30, has at times been one of the league’s best and most entertaining players. But he’s never been without flaws, and those flaws have never been more present than they are right now. I’d argue that there is no player in franchise history more enigmatic than Evgeny Kuznetsov.
In the wake of the news about Kuznetsov’s trade request, I think it would be useful to consider the player’s whole career to understand more precisely what he’s been, what he is now, and what he could be in the future. I have broken his whole career down into five distinct eras.
For the purposes of this discussion, I’m considering only on-the-ice matters. I invite you to discuss the rest in comments, but it’s not appropriate for what I’m doing today.
2013 to 2015
Kuznetsov’s first partial season came at the sputtering end of the Adam Oates administration, so aside from some highlight plays, those first 17 games didn’t tell us much.
His first real season was also the team’s first under Barry Trotz. Kuznetsov climbed from third-line minutes into the top six, but the Capitals were still underwater when he was on the ice: 49.2 percent by attempts, 48.8 percent by expected goals. Elite goaltending from Braden Holtby was the reason why Kuznetsov managed a positive on-ice goal percentage. He generated 1.32 points per hour of five-on-five play, ranking him 235 out of 335 forwards with 600 minutes played. Kuznetsov would double that rate in the next season.
2015 to 2018
Kuznetsov’s breakout season was 2015-16, recording 20 goals and 57 assists (a career high) in 82 games. Evolving Hockey’s goals above replacement metric (GAR) estimated Kuznetsov added 19.5 goals that season, third highest in the league, behind only Thornton and Kane. Kuznetsov firmly became a top-six player, at times trading top-line duties with Nicklas Backstrom. That saw him playing with better linemates, whom he began providing elite-level playmaking abilities.
HockeyViz calls playmaking for teammates “setting”, and during this era no one did it better than Evgeny Kuznetsov.
This era extends to the end of 2018, but there were big changes for Kuznetsov in the Cup year. After spending ten hours with Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson in 2017, his main linemates in 2018 were Ovechkin and Vrana. Those are all fantastic players, but while Ovechkin and Vrana have great offense, they fall way short of Williams and Johansson at driving play. The linemate shift meant the Capitals controlled a smaller share of shot attempts (47.8 percent, down from 52.1.) when Kuznetsov was on the ice, but improved finishing talent meant the Caps remained dominant on the scoreboard, improving the on-ice goal percentage from 58.9 to 61.5.
The ability to drive goals beyond expectation is the quintessence of Kuznetsov. Even as his underlying play falls off, he has remained able to make scoring chances more dangerous than average – mostly due to his excellent talent for high-value passes. In any era, Kuznetsov is strong at making passes-leading-to-shots on the rush, making passes across the slot that force goalies to move, and in general threatening the net from below the goal line. The decline we’ll see next is to some degree the result of Kuznetsov having less opportunity to do what he does best.
But before we talk about the decline, the end of Kuznetsov’s Star Era hinted at what was about to come. In the 2017-18, opponents generated 13.6 high danger chances per hour when Kuznetsov was on the ice, up from 10.1 the year before. In approximate terms, that’s the difference of going from a league-average team at shot suppression to a bottom-five team. Kuznetsov’s play without the puck is about to become a crisis.
2018 to 2021
Picking up where we left off, in 2018-19 opponents generated 16.5 high-danger chances per hour during Kuznetsov’s shift. No forward with at least 600 minutes that season saw opponents get as many dangerous chances.
(Caps goalies saved a solid 92.8 percent during Kuznetsov’s shift but still allowed five goals beyond expected, which suggests to me that opponents got extraordinarily high-danger chances.)
Once the league leader in the offense compartment of GAR, Kuznetsov was now third worst in even-strength defense, behind his main linemate Alex Ovechkin and poor, lonely Connor McDavid.
By the shortened 2019-20 season, the Capitals were getting caved in while Kuznetsov was on the ice: owning 45.1 percent of shot attempts, 45.0 percent of expected goals. But Kuznetsov somehow managed to hide that eroding underlying play from the scoreboard; the Caps outscored opponents 45 to 44 during his shifts. Kuznetsov scored 13 even-strength goals in the 63 games of the abbreviated 2019-20 season, giving him the highest five-on-five individual goal-scoring rate of his career.
As discussed above, for this story I will not be discussing Kuznetsov’s off-ice events.
2021 to 2022
Kuznetsov put the smile back in his game with a compelling comeback, featuring the following:
The 2020-21 season found Kuznetsov with his first and only positive score in the even-strength defense component of GAR, a plus-0.2. He remained ineffective on the forecheck and saw his primary-assist rate drop, but with his improved defense he was a net-positive to the Caps, outscoring opponents 34 to 18 in 2020-21 and 56 to 46 in 2021-22.
In 2021-22 Kuznetsov fell just slightly behind his career-bests in goals and assists, managing to play 79 games when many other players missed time due to COVID absences. More importantly, Kuznetsov felt like an antidote to Washington’s gradually slowing and stifled offense. Specifically, Corey Sznajder’s All Three Zones project found Kuznetsov to be elite at making passes from the center lane, high-danger assists, deflection assists, and one-timer assists.
But the improvements didn’t happen only when Kuznetsov was on attack. He was better without the puck, especially in the neutral zone. Playing primarily with Ovechkin and Tom Wilson, Kuznetsov became the main player responsible for activating offense, which he did with tenacious puck retrieval and effective transition into the neutral zone.
So Kuznetsov played better in the defensive zone, but perhaps more importantly he played less often in the defensive zone. No NHL forward had a higher rate of offensive-zone starts than Kuznetsov did in 2020-21. He was a dramatically sheltered player, which in hindsight was a wise strategy by Peter Laviolette, especially considering the team’s strength in forward depth with Hathaway and Dowd.
For a while, it seemed that Kuznetsov’s renewed resolve and a personalized playing context would combine to give the player a new future.
2022 to 2023
Out of 316 forwards with at least 600 minutes played this season, just 16 see opponents generate a higher rate of high-danger chances, and ten of those guys play for Anaheim. Washington has been outscored 48 to 43 when Kuznetsov is on the ice. Kuznetsov didn’t have an even-strength goal before Thanksgiving and his goal-rate has dropped by almost half. His primary assist rate remains strong, but not strong enough to offset the 3.2 expected goals per hour that opponents generate against him – again 17th worse among 316 forwards.
Kuznetsov is in the offensive zone more often than he was in the decline era (48.9 percent according to shot attempts, up from 45.1 in 2019-20), but he’s less creative once in there. He takes fewer one-timer shots and grabs fewer rebounds. His forechecking efforts and puck retrievals are both way down, and that means Washington’s sessions on attack end sooner. Kuznetsov himself seems to be carrying the puck less often than at any time in his career.
Kuznetsov’s skill at setting up plays for his teammates remains strong, but his individual scoring has cratered – muting his ability to score beyond expectation. His combined GAR this season is minus-8.2, lower than any forward on a non-tanking team. In short, he’s not special anymore, and he is very bad.
One thing I love about using numbers to discuss hockey is that it’s honest about what it doesn’t know. Kuznetsov’s value for a long time had been hard to express using publicly available data. His specialness was, from one perspective, enigmatic. And with Kuznetsov so went the team. In the team previews of The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn, Washington’s habit of exceeding model-based expectations has been a running bit for years:
The Capitals always play above expectations during the regular season, so it’s likely my model is underselling their ability. They very well could waltz right into the postseason without much effort, as they always do, but I’m still not sure the team is as strong as it’s currently made out to be.
Over the past four seasons, the Capitals have earned a middling 49.7 percent expected goals share, but a league-leading 56.4 percent goals share. That near seven percentage point difference is far and away the largest in the league, and it stems from the team’s efficiency at exploiting tactics that aren’t currently measured. It means models like this one (even though it uses goal-based data as well) can tend to underrate the team’s ability and that may just be the case again this season.
This model has been highly skeptical of the team for the past few years so it’s natural to believe it simply has a blind spot for the way Washington manufactures results. The Capitals have long been a dangerous team that can outscore expectations based on a style of play that public models struggle with[. . .]
One way to understand Washington’s team-level decline is the loss of that talent for outscoring expectations, and Kuznetsov represents that effect in miniature. Kuznetsov and the Caps became less special in those hard-to-measure ways, and now the models feel more justified in their pessimism.
Which means visualizations like the one below from HockeyViz stop being cute curiosities (“your numbers just don’t understand this player”) and start becoming sad realities. Below, HockeyViz shows Kuznetsov’s estimated impact on offense (top) and defense (bottom) in every season from 2016-17 to the present. Red blobs mean more events happen at that location on the ice, so it’s good when there are red blobs at top and blue blobs at bottom. That was rarely what you got with Kuznetsov, and for a long time that was okay.
Kuznetsov had magic tricks on offense that made his shots and his teammates shots more valuable than other teams’ shots from those same places. And that magic was more than enough to excuse Kuznetsov’s shortcomings without the puck. But then the magic disappeared, and the shortcomings got even shorter, and now we’re here, with a $7.8 million player who is among the league’s worst by some measurements.
This story would not be possible without All Three Zones, Evolving Hockey, Natural Stat Trick, and HockeyViz. Please consider joining us in supporting them.
Headline photo: Alan Dobbins
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