At the end of the 2020-21 season, following a third straight loss in the first round of the NHL playoffs, Capitals’ center Evgeny Kuznetsov was cast aside by many fans and labeled by some as the team pariah. Two bouts with COVID-19, a healthy scratch after he and Ilya Samsonov were late to a team event, and rather lackluster stats (for him) for the season seemed to signal the end for Kuznetsov in Washington.
Then, there were grumblings from national reporters that members of the front office were fed up with Kuznetsov and would explore a trade for him. General Manager Brian MacLellan didn’t necessarily squash those rumors in his first interview after the playoffs.
Kuznetsov shrugged off the rumors in his interviews with the press, mentioning that the trade rumors were something that every player has to deal with. There were some willing to part with Kuznetsov for a bargain price, while others were willing to let him redeem himself. It’s looking like the redemption arc is paying off for Kuznetsov so far this season.
Let’s take a look at his performance so far this season. The statistics in this post are courtesy of Natural Stat Trick, JFreshHockey, Hockey-Reference, and Evolving-Hockey. If you’d like to learn more about the analytical terms used in this post, please check out our NHL Analytics Glossary.
Defense and Shot Attempt Suppression
One of the biggest knocks on Kuznetsov throughout his career was his attention and dedication to defense. As a player who’s paid to put up points, it’s certainly typical for the play-in-your-own-zone philosophy to take a back seat. In Kuznetsov’s case, though, his defensive play has improved considerably under Peter Laviolette’s tutelage:
During five on five play this season, Kuznetsov is on the ice for a rate of 51.31 Corsi shot attempts per 60 minutes of play, which aligns almost identically with the rate he allowed last season. Among NHL forwards who have played at least 100 minutes this season during five on five play, he’s currently ranked 107th. One thing to keep in mind, though, is among forwards, only five players log more five on five ice time than Kuznetsov (288:49).
Here’s the most important defensive statistic: goals against:
Kuznetsov is having his best season since 2014-15 with regards to five on five GA/60. This is certainly a welcome sight after the three season stretch from 2017-2020. Again, under Laviolette, Kuznetsov has become much more responsible, defensively. He won’t be winning any Selke Trophies anytime soon, but the effort and the results are there, so far.
Here are his expected goals against per 60 minutes:
It’s another one of those graphs showing a drastic negative uptick from 2017-2020, that stabilizes when Laviolette comes to town. The interesting piece here is, from 2014-17, then head coach Barry Trotz seemingly kept him in check defensively. Then, once Todd Reirden took over, Kuznetsov’s defensive focus just seemed to switch off. There might be something there to think about, especially when it came out that MacLellan was looking for a coach that could hold players accountable after firing Reirden.
Lots of folks criticized Kuznetsov’s scoring over the past few seasons, especially after Kuznetsov put the hockey world on notice with his Conn Smythe-worthy performance in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The interesting part here is, although his raw numbers were down, Kuznetsov was still scoring at relatively similar rates:
Now you may look at this bar graph and see wild swings in his total points per 60 numbers, but they’re actually much closer than they appear. The thing to point out here is that there was a drop-off in scoring from 2017-18 through the 2021 season, but Kuznetsov has elevated his scoring production once again to near 2017-18 levels.
In the seasons with the highest peaks, Kuznetsov scored 77 points in 2015-16, 83 in 2017-18, and has 22 points in 19 games so far this season. That would put Kuznetsov on a 94 point pace for this season, which would be a career high.
Something that’s interesting is that Kuznetsov is scoring goals at a rate of 0.9 goals per 60 minutes, but is shooting slightly under his career shooting percentage of 11.7% (he’s currently at 11.5%). It’s not like Kuznetsov is accumulating points due to an abnormal amount of luck. For PDO believers, Kuznetsov has always carried a high PDO rate (103.5 career), and is posting 104.2 this season. That has more to do with his utilization and deployment than luck, because the save percentage of goaltenders when he’s on the ice is .896.
Here’s a view from Evolving-Hockey on Kuznetsov’s Regularized Adjusted Plus Minus:
So, the gist of RAPM is to chart player performances in relation to an average (or replacement level) performance. The Z-Score of zero on the vertical axis is replacement level, and each step up or down the Z-Score is a standard deviation away from replacement level.
Kuznetsov has proven to have a lot of value on the GF/60 category. It certainly helps to have the greatest goal scorer of all time on your wing, but Kuznetsov is generating a lot of the chances for Ovechkin (and Tom Wilson for that matter).
Kuznetsov is above replacement level by a decent margin in every metric but CF/60. The interesting piece with Kuznetsov is that his CF/60 may be low because he actually controls the puck for a long period of time in the offensive zone, looking for passing lanes or getting in a position to make a shot attempt.
This is why Corsi isn’t the be-all-to-end-all of advanced metrics. It’s a piece of the whole puzzle for player evaluation. As fans of the team that Kuznetsov plays for, we know that Kuznetsov’s actual puck possession ability is elite.
Here’s JFreshHockey’s Player Cards, showing the value of a player in wins above replacement percentile:
JFresh’s player cards use a three year weighted average to show abilities and value over time. The biggest value gain is what we’ve talked about earlier in this post: Kuznetsov’s defensive abilities have been revived, and therefore, his overall value has consistently improved. From the period of 2020-2022, Kuznetsov is up into the 75th WAR percentile, but is stuck at a 56% average WAR for the past three seasons.
Evgeny Kuznetsov has put in an extreme amount of dedication and effort to righting his game and getting back to the elite level the Capitals front office, coaching staff, fellow players, and fans expect him to be. So far this season, we’ve seen a glimpse of the Kuznetsov that was one of the key factors that delivered the team’s first and only (so far) Stanley Cup.
The most important thing for Kuznetsov is consistency. Consistent effort from him will likely be met with consistent production. He’ll certainly have his dry spells–it happens to everyone–but the focus and effort needs to be there during those tough times. For Kuznetsov, it was never the “can’t do”, it was always the “want to”. He sure seems like he “wants to” this season.
By Justin Trudel