Photo: Sports Illustrated
One of the hardest things to do in today’s NHL is to stay consistent over a full 82-game slate. While recording 21 goals and 72 points in 76 games in a season may be impressive for many NHL players, it was a bit of a disappointment for Washington Capitals center Evgeny Kuznetsov, after he showed what he could do during the team’s run to the Stanley Cup in 2018. For the Capitals to make another run for the Cup this season, Kuznetsov needs to get back to the level of consistency he was at two seasons ago.
Kuznetsov’s 2018-19 season was filled with inconsistent play, which he routinely goes through every year, and included a concussion which forced him out of the lineup for six games in November. After he recorded 31 points in his first 28 games of the season, the 27-year old went on a bit of a slump with just one goal and seven points in his next 16 games. Only one of his first eight goals of the season came at 5-on-5 (six on the power-play and another on a 6-on-5). This has been nothing new for Kuznetsov as he has gone through prolonged scoring slumps throughout his career and then usually follows it up with a hot streak. He finished the year with only eight goals and 43 points at 5-on-5, according to Natural Statrick. His 107 shots and 40 high-danger scoring chances created at 5-on-5 were his lowest since his rookie season.
Kuznetsov’s Corsi-for percentage (team shots + blocks + misses vs. against when the player is on the ice) of 47.35%, Fenwick-for percentage of 47.1% (shots + blocks vs. against when the player was on the ice), high-danger goals-for percentage of 48.33%, and scoring chances-for percentage of 39.75% were all career-lows in those categories in his five full NHL seasons.
While Kuznetsov was impressive at home with 17 goals (seven of which came on the power-play) and 46 points in 39 games at Capital One Arena last season, he was not the same on the road as he posted just four goals (only one which came on the power-play through March 14) and 26 points in 37 games.
Part of the reason Kuznetsov’s offensive numbers dipped from the previous year is that first-year head coach Todd Reirden gave him more defensive responsibility. Though Kuznetsov tried to improve his two-way game, he finished outside the top-15 on the team in every defensive category besides takeaways (tied for sixth with forward T.J. Oshie with 46). His 38.7% winning percentage on faceoffs was also the 20th-worst among all NHL centers who appeared in at least 35 games last season.
Despite the fact that Kuznetsov averaged 0.95 points-per-game last season, he was held off of the scoresheet 37 times (49% of the games he played in). Additionally, 40 of Kuznetsov’s 76 points (53%) came in multi-point efforts.
Even though Kuznetsov’s 193 shots last season tied a career-high which was set in the 2015-16 season, his shooting percentage dropped by 3.5% from the previous season.
After a four-game point streak in February (two goals, five points), Kuznetsov was held to just two assists in the next six games. He then went on two more four-game point-streaks, which were each followed by two-game pointless streaks to close out the season.
While Kuznetsov recorded six points in seven games during the Capitals’ first-round exit to the Carolina Hurricanes (only one was a goal), he did not record a point on the road and half of his production came on the power-play. He finished the series with a -1 rating. Additionally, his linemates (Oshie/Carl Hagelin and Jakub Vrana) combined for only one goal and three points. The lack of scoring from his line was arguably the biggest reason why the Capitals were eliminated in the first round, and Kuznetsov is the driver of that trio.
Kuznetsov’s game picked up right where it left off from the Stanley Cup run to start the season but he failed to maintain that consistency throughout the year and he couldn’t find his game towards the end when the Capitals needed it the most. That has been something that has plagued him throughout his playing career. His uneven play could be partially due to the concussion he suffered, but his inability to deliver on the road like he does at home is a cause for concern.
The Capitals showed that they expect Kuznetsov to be the dynamic and consistent playmaking center that he has been when they signed him to an eight-year, $62.4 million contract ($7.8 million AVV) two years ago. While that playmaking skill showed up occasionally, Kuznetsov needs to bring his high-level game consistently next this season. If he can do that, the Capitals will likely be among the league’s top contenders for the Stanley Cup. If not, the result will likely be another early exit in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
By Harrison Brown