During the Washington Capitals’ 2018 run to the Stanley Cup, Center Evgeny Kuznetsov was, in short, invaluable. Leading the team in scoring during the postseason, the former first-round pick proved what a gamechanger he could be. In subsequent seasons, a myriad of circumstances saw the dynamic forward struggle with inconsistency. The 2021-22 season saw a rejuvenated Kuznetsov emerge as one of the Caps’ best assets.
While the 2021-22 season, in which Kuznetsov finished second in scoring (78 Points), tied for first in Assists (54), and tied for second in Goals (24), and was also given more responsibility by Head Coach Peter Laviolette, seeing time on the Penalty Kill (averaging over one minute of shorthanded ice time per game) in addition to his role on the Power Play. Kuznetsov’s productive start and finish to the 2021-22 campaign was a comfort for a Capitals team that did not get longtime center Nicklas Backstrom back into the lineup until December 15, as he recovered from a hip injury.
The upcoming 2022-23 season, however, just might be the most important for Kuznetsov in terms of continuing his play from the previous campaign. Backstrom, still affected by the aforementioned hip injury, underwent surgery (which he recently discussed in detail) during the offseason, which will quite possibly keep him out of the lineup for some time. As a result, it will fall on all of the Capitals’ players to pick up the slack, but a hot start from Kuznetsov may be imperative.
While Kuznetsov has by no means had an underwhelming career thus far (496 Points in 599 Games Played), prior to 2021-22 he struggled to match or come close to his previous career-high offensive output (83 Points in 79 Games in the Cup-winning 2017-18 season) on a consistent basis, and off-ice incidents and a lack of confidence and morale led to the 26th overall pick in 2010 feeling the pressure from all sides, with trade rumors surrounding him in the 2021 offseason.
While Backstrom’s absence at the start of last season was certainly an incentive for Kuznetsov to take advantage of an increased role, he entered training camp in an improved mood and mindset, one that led to his 78-point season, career-high average 20:17 of ice time, increased responsibilities at both ends of the ice, and 56.1% Corsi For to finish the regular season.
While the expectation of another productive season from the 30-year old Kuznetsov was present prior to this coming season, with Backstrom unlikely to begin the season in the lineup, the Caps will need “The Bird” to come alive from the word go. With a strong supporting cast, there is no reason to think that he won’t meet the challenge.
By Michael Fleetwood