Hanging on by a thread, can Capitals center Evgeny Kuznetsov bounce back?

By: Kalilu Jawara, Columnist

Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.

When the Washington Capitals hoisted the Stanley Cup in 2018, there were two primary takeaways most people had. One, there was nothing anybody could hold against Alex Ovechkin who had just proven all his doubters wrong with one of the best performances of his career. Two, Evgeny Kuznetsov, who led the playoffs in scoring that year, had just arrived as one of the premier players in the NHL.

Kuznetsov was just 26 years old and had powered Washington to one of the most cathartic Stanley Cup runs of all time, which included scoring one of the biggest goals in franchise history when he tucked home a breakaway past Matt Murray to send the Caps past the hated Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round. 

Playing on a line with Ovechkin and Tom Wilson, Kuznetsov wasn’t just playing the best hockey of his career. He was arguably the best player in the league throughout the entire playoffs. Many already recognized him as a high-end center in the league, but from his play that spring, all signs pointed towards Kuznetsov taking over as a superstar who could only get better from there.

What’s followed in the three years since has been a rollercoaster with more lows than highs, marked by inconsistent play on the ice, irresponsible-at-best decisions off ice, all while the Capitals have failed to win a playoff round in three consecutive seasons. 

There have been flashes of the game breaking talent that helped the Capitals win their first championship in league history, but they haven’t happened anywhere near as often as fans would’ve hoped.

After three consecutive first round exits, the entire Capitals roster has come under fire, but nobody has been under more scrutiny than Kuznetsov. His play on the ice, as mentioned before, has been up and down with the downs occurring at a higher rate. 

At times he looked completely disengaged, a far cry from the dynamic player he was when he first entered the league. This has been reflected statistically as well. After posting 83 points in 79 games in 2017-18, his production has gradually decreased every year since. The decline has been even more pronounced looking at advanced metrics, where he has posted disastrous results as well.

This would be bad enough without all the trouble he’s gotten himself into off the ice. When the Winter Olympics roll around in 2022, Kuznetsov won’t be able to represent Russia as he was given a four year ban from all international play after testing positive for cocaine. This past season alone, he was effectively suspended after violating COVID-19 protocols, and scratched months later after missing a team meeting. The declining play, increasing distractions, and overall lack of playoff success led to reports of the Caps’ front office growing tired of his act, making a trade at some point over the offseason seemingly inevitable.

Training camp has now rolled around, and that trade has not happened. In hindsight, it was never going to happen for a slew of reasons. With the NHL salary cap locked in at $81.5 million for the foreseeable future, it would be hard to picture a team willing to take on Kuznetsov’s contract, which carries a cap hit of $7.8 million until 2025. More importantly, such a trade would have to benefit the Capitals, who are not at all interested in rebuilding as Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom enter the twilight of their careers. 

Finding a trade that simultaneously makes your team better while also giving up your #2 center is quite the task, one that the Capitals understandably weren’t able to pull off in the event that they did try to move Kuznetsov over the summer.

So for better or worse, the Capitals are yet again “stuck” with Kuznetsov, to the chagrin of fans who wanted him gone after last season’s performance. However, there’s reason to believe that this could end up being for the better. 

As maddening as his absences were last season, Kuznetsov quietly displayed a return to form whenever he was available. While 29 points in 41 games doesn’t seem very impressive on the surface, underlying numbers suggest that Kuznetsov was getting back on track in a year where his play was heavily affected by COVID-19. He’s been far from an analytical darling over the last few years, but according to NaturalStatTrick.com, his on-ice impact was significantly improved compared to the previous two seasons. 

One such improvement could be seen in his defense, an aspect of his game that has especially come under fire. According to NaturalStatTrick.com, the Capitals allowed an average of 3.14 goals per 60 minutes Kuznetsov was on the ice in 2020, which would’ve been near the bottom of the league. In 2021, that number was shaved down to just 1.98 goals per 60 minutes. Overall, it was the first season since 2017 where he had a positive impact on the Capitals’ possession numbers. 

He wasn’t dishing out twister passes and pulling off moves only he’d be willing to try like the younger Kuznetsov often would, but 2021 saw the 29-year-old playing a far more controlled game on both ends of the ice, an improvement over the erratic play we’ve seen in the last couple of years.

This would suggest that under new head coach Peter Laviolette, Kuznetsov has been trending upwards. Of course, the mantra for the last couple of seasons has been something along the lines of “This is the year Kuzy bounces back,” and at this point it’s probably best to assume that his 2018 run was more him catching lightning in a bottle than it was the coming out party people hoped it’d be. 

However, if the Capitals have more ambitious plans this season than a fourth consecutive first round exit, they had no realistic path that didn’t include Kuznetsov building on the positives of last season. It’s just a matter of whether or not he’ll be able to, a bet that I’d be more willing to make than trading him for the sake of trading him.

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