Thursday marked the official on-ice start of the Spencer Carbery Era in Washington as Capitals’ Training Camp got underway. After serving two years in Toronto as an assistant, Carbery, formerly head coach of both the Hershey Bears and South Carolina Stingrays, will lead a veteran-laden Caps group that missed the playoffs for the first time nine years.
One player that will hold special significance on if Carbery succeeds or struggles early is Evgeny Kuznetsov. Kuznetsov, 31, is headed into his eleventh season with the Caps and is coming off of his worst-scoring campaign (55 points) since his sophomore year in the league.
The Caps are hoping that a youthful, energized head coach like Carbery will be able to push the reset button on Kuznetsov and get him producing at the level he has shown he can in the past.
“I know Spencer has talked to [Kuznetsov] a few times,” MacLellan said. “I’m hoping he, along with the rest of our guys, is energized by a little different philosophy and a new young coach that’s enthusiastic. [Spencer] is building a relationship now with Kuzy so I think it should be positive for him.
“The style that Spencer wants to play and his philosophy of playing the game suits Kuzy. I think [Kuzy] should be in alignment with that and respond well to it.”
That sort of talk is a far cry from the uncertainty that has surrounded Kuznetsov since March of last year when a Russian report from outlet Match TV dropped saying that the Russian pivot had requested a trade from the team for consecutive seasons. A report, that was never directly denied by Kuznetsov and confirmed by the Caps in an article published by senior reporter Mike Vogel on the team’s website.
Multiple trusted reporters from around the league then dished that the Caps were shopping Kuznetsov over the summer. Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman divulged that the Caps and Nashville Predators had concrete trade discussions regarding Kuznetsov at the most recent NHL Draft.
“Last year was the tough year, and there was a lot of bad thoughts in my head and negativity because I wasn’t happy the way I played,” Kuznetsov said. “I wasn’t happy the way I performed. I know how can I play and what hockey, what I can bring to the table. I wasn’t happy the way I played and there is frustration, right? When [you’re] frustrated you’re probably thinking about too much.
“I’m not the guy that’s going to get big paycheck and be happy everyday,” Kuznetsov continued later. “So every time I come back home after a bad practice or bad game, I’m beating myself (up) and I’m not happy about (it). Every time I walking in locker room every morning knowing they tell me you’re not performing the way the guys expected me to perform, I’m feeling bad about (it).”
Kuznetsov ended up leaving DC over the summer and spent a good chunk of time in his hometown of Chelyabinsk. He said it helped him feel better because “there is no social media in Russia right now… The only stuff I was able to get is from the friends, or people outside (who) come to me.”
That time away from tweets and posts allowed for him to zero in on what is actually important to him and move on from some of the shame and embarrassment he described feeling last season while playing under former head coach Peter Laviolette.
“I want to be happy and I want the people to be happy (with) the way I play, the way I can play, right?” Kuznetsov said. “So it’s two different things. And I want to be successful too, because my kids grow up, they understand hockey a little bit and now, every time I have a shitty game, they kind of talk to me about that. That’s not good. I can lie to you or anybody else, but not the kids.”
Kuznetsov’s outlook considerably brightened when he was asked to comment on his communications with Carbery. Carbery has long been heralded as a great communicator on an individual basis with players, going as far as saying in June after his hiring that “strong communication is critical” if a team wants to have success. Kuznetsov has already seen that firsthand.
“He’s a great person and I feel like the way he sees hockey — it’s a perfect match for me and a perfect match for a lot of guys inside the team,” Kuznetsov said. “He wants to keep the puck in the middle, he wants to control the game, and he wants to hold onto that puck. I’m a big fan of that when you control the game, when you hold onto that puck, when you’re playing with the puck and you always force the best players in opposition to play without puck. I think that’s how you can keep them frustrated. So, there is a lot of positivity in my head when I talk to him. The most important, he was very honest with me and I was very honest with him too.”
Carbery discussed how he’d handle the talented yet sometimes enigmatic center when he spoke with Vogel on the Break the Ice podcast earlier this month.
The former AHL Coach of the Year stressed information gathering on the player as the first step in that process, wanting to compare Kuznetsov’s peak performance to his most recent play. To do that, he says he needs to rely on members of the Caps organization that have been there through both the highs and the lows.
“Find out from teammates, other coaches, management, scouts, whatever it is, find out what’s made them successful in the past or what have they looked like when they’ve been at their best,” Carbery said. “Now watch the film and see the good of when they were at the top of their game.
“Look at the last 20 games, whatever it is, from the previous season that they played in. What doesn’t look the same? What’s different about this player than what I saw when he was clicking on all cylinders? So try to identify those details inside of their game that potentially I can help them with.”
The next step, he says, is to come up with a collaborative plan.
“There’s no magic pixie dust,” Carbery said. “It’s not like, ‘Okay, good luck. You need to do XYZ.’ I have to help him get there and have to help identify the situations where he’s doing a great job and where he’s not. And it won’t be different for any other player, trying to help them reach their full potential.”
Carbery’s work early already has Kuznetsov back in a good place mentally. “I’m taking one day at the time,” he said. “I’m here today and I’m going to leave everything I have. I’m going to try to help the team to be successful every day.”
Those prior trade talks have also quieted down, too. While MacLellan did indicate that he’ll continue to search for an additional top-six forward this season, the GM made it sound like it would be in addition to Kuznetsov in the lineup.
“It’s been a little frustrating,” MacLellan said of the trade market. “But, we’re still looking for that opportunity to do that. We’ll continue to talk to teams throughout the year on that.
“We need [Kuznetsov]. He’s a good player and we need him to be competitive and our team to be competitive and him to be playing at his top level.”
Kuznetsov’s first day on the ice began with skating on a line with Sonny Milano and Tom Wilson — something the three of them did not do much of last season. Similarly, Kuznetsov’s normal running mate Alex Ovechkin was placed with Nicklas Backstrom and Anthony Mantha. Neither trio played over half an hour of five-on-five minutes together in 2022-23.
“I feel like 12 or 15 forwards that we have can all mix and we can all play hockey.” Kuznetsov said. “So it’s on us to make sure we always execute what the coaches want because the coaches’ plan is very important. I feel like this year, especially this year, it’s very important in the beginning of the season.”
That moment, in October, is where Kuznetsov hopes to make amends and everyone notices a big difference.
“My goal is just to make sure when season starts, every morning I come back, I can look eyes-to-eyes and say ‘guys I did everything’ and they know I was trying and doing my best game,” Kuznetsov said.
Headline photo: Katie Adler/RMNB
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