I know, it’s almost sacrilege to even ask the question, but he’s making a race of it. It really comes down to the two other contenders; the reigning champion, Alex Ovechkin, and the perennially underrated Nick Backstrom. So lets take a look and see where things stand, for now.
The best shot on the team and in hockey is undoubtedly Ovechkin. Kuznetsov has a great one, but in this case he’s up against the master. Backstrom trails Ovi as well, but I think it’s a tie for second place. Between Kuznetsov and Backstrom, it’s too close to call.
Passing gets complicated. Backstrom is the master of the flat pass. If putting the puck right on someones tape is the only measure, Backstrom takes it. Ovechkin makes some great passes as well, but he doesn’t do it with enough frequency to be considered up there with either Backstrom or Kuznetsov. Kuznetsov makes passes where it seems like a pass isn’t possible. If creativity and passing from anywhere is the measure, Kuzy wins it. He’s not far off Backstrom in the flat pass department either. All in all, I have this one as a tie. It’s really hard to separate Backstrom and Kuznetsov in the passing department.
Defense is an easy call for first, Backstrom is great in his own zone. Kuznetsov looks like he could get there, but this is one area where he still has work to do. Ovechkin meanwhile has gotten much better but clearly it’s not his best attribute. Call it a win for Kuznetsov taking second to Backstrom.
In terms of physical play, another easy one. Ovechkin hits like a freight train. Backstrom isn’t physical nearly as often but he’s proven he’s more than capable when it’s required. This is another area where Kuznetsov could use some work. It doesn’t hinder his play all that often, but you’d like to see him improve just the same.
Puck handling is another tough one. Kuznetsov has proven to be a wizard with the puck. Backstrom is probably better at protecting the puck but it’s a slight advantage. Ovechkin meanwhile shows how good he can be puck handling just often enough that you can’t discount his abilities. Kuznetsov wins this one. He’s shown Ovi’s jaw dropping moves, and he does it game after game. Combine that with his puck protecting abilities, and he combines the best of Backstrom and Ovechkin in puck handling. Backstrom and Ovi tie for second.
The last area is skating ability. This is also the toughest. All three are incredible. It’s tempting to edge Kuznetsov and Backstrom ahead because they’re both excellent at subtle shifts in speed at just the right moment to lose defenders, but Ovechkin’s power moves are impressive as well. It’s a wash. They’re each different skaters with slight edges in some areas, but overall, they’re pretty equal.
So where does it all come out? Right now I have Ovechkin as still the best, followed by Backstrom and Kuznetsov. If we were counting points it might look different, but Ovi has had an impact on so many games over the years and Kuznetsov just hasn’t played long enough to build that resume yet. As incredible as Kuznetsov has been, and as much promise as he has, Ovechkin and Backstrom have been doing it year after year for a long time now. If he can continue what he’s done to start this season, he’s not far from passing Backstrom. Defense, face-offs and length of service are the differentiators for now. A year from now, or even sooner, things might look very different. If Kuznetsov can improve in the circle and on defense he’ll not only surpass Backstrom but he’ll be on Ovechkin’s heels as well.
What a great time to be a Caps fan! We have the best player in hockey, and the guy who could arguably surpass him in the future. To top it off, all three contenders are great guys off the ice.
By Ernie Mudd