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Since he joined the Capitals at the tail-end of the 2013-14 season, center Evgeny Kuznetsov’s game as a player has evolved by leaps and bounds. At one time considered the best player not playing in the National Hockey League. Kuznetsov’s offensive talent is undeniable and in his fifth full season in the NHL, the former first-round pick (26th overall in 2010) is quickly becoming one of the NHL’s best players and one of the Capitals’ most important leaders.
When he first came to North America, Kuznetsov’s English and communication skills, as well as his play on North American ice was still very much a work in progress. However, four years later, his improved command of the English language and adaption to the smaller rinks have enabled him to thrive with the Capitals. After recording a career-high 83 points (27 goals, 56 assists) in the Caps’ Stanley Cup-winning season, Kuznetsov is quite simply, dominating when it comes to offense in 2018-19. In just seven games played thus far, the 26-year old pivot has four goals, and 12 points, with a plus/minus rating of plus-2, while averaging a career-high 20:57 minutes of ice time for Head Coach Todd Reirden. But what has pushed the offensive dynamo into the league’s best (a push that has gone relatively unnoticed outside Washington) is his evolution into an all-around player.
Prior to this season, Kuznetsov had never seen time on the penalty kill, with the likes of Lars Eller, Jay Beagle, among others, occupying time shorthanded. With the loss of Beagle in free agency, Reirden decided to give Kuznetsov the chance to play on the penalty kill, something the center supported. Through seven games, Kuznetsov’s play on the PK has been mixed. Of the eight power play goals the Capitals have allowed, Kuznetsov was on the ice for two of them (25%), but has won 75% of his faceoffs shorthanded. Defensively as a whole, Kuznetsov has been on the ice for eight goals against, compared to 18 goals for, and has a Corsi rating of 54.3%. At even-strength, Kuznetsov has also been on the ice for 4.4 goals for, and for 3.3 goals-against, and has eight takeaways to just five giveaways.
With a command of the English language, Kuznetsov’s evolution as a leader has also become apparent. For many, Kuznetsov’s straightforwardness and honesty is a quality that has earned him respect as a leader, often pointing to mistakes the team made in a loss, or emphasizing the importance of looking forward to the next game after a win. Kuznetsov’s play and poise on the ice shows the dedication and hard work ethic that has allowed him to become one of the NHL’s best players. Still only 26, Kuznetsov is just entering the prime of his career, and given his game-changing play this far into his career, the sky seems to be the limit for the Caps’ superstar center.
By Michael Fleetwood