Capitals center Evgeny Kuznetsov says he welcomes the pressure that comes along with the eight-year, $62.4 million contract extension that he signed this summer.
The deal carries a cap hit of $7.8 million, which is the second highest on the Caps behind captain Alex Ovechkin. It also ranks as the 11th highest cap hit among all NHL centers.
“I feel more responsibility on me right now,” Kuznetsov said, “and that’s what I need.”
Kuznetsov possesses all of the skills and instincts a team could want in a top-six pivot. The challenge for him, though, has been producing at a clip commensurate with his immense ability for an entire 82-game regular season and the playoffs. For example, last season the 25-year-old started slowly, was named the NHL’s player of the month during a torrid January, cooled off a bit down the stretch, then was the team’s third most productive player in the postseason, racking up five goals and five assists in 13 games.
In order to take the next step, he can’t afford sluggish starts and late season lulls.
“I want the people to ask more from me,” he said. “And at the same time, they give me more opportunity to show more.”
Kuznetsov returned to Washington on Monday along with fellow Russians Ovechkin and Dmitry Orlov. The trio has been on the ice for the team’s informal skates the past two days as they ramp up for the start of training camp in mid-September.
“Two years ago, I practiced all summer here,” Kuznetsov said, asked why he chose to arrive earlier than many of his teammates. “Then last year we have to be back home for World Cup.”
“This year,” he said with a smile, “I kinda stayed a little bit more [at] home. My wife wants this, so it’s kind of an easy decision.”
It’s been a summer of highs (signing the mega extension) and lows (watching a handful of key veterans depart) for Kuznetsov. On Wednesday, he skated alongside former teammate Marcus Johansson, who was dealt to New Jersey in July to accommodate the $139 million in extensions the Caps handed out to himself, T.J. Oshie and Orlov.
“It’s always tough when some friends and your teammates leave to other team,” Kuznetsov said. “But that’s the way of hockey, part of the business. The good thing [is] we all keep being friends, you know? We all understand that’s part of the business.”
On the flip side, Kuznetsov said he’s looking forward to a more competitive environment in camp as new players and prospects jockey for jobs. With the departure of forwards Justin Williams, Johansson and Daniel Winnik as well as defensemen Karl Alzner, Nate Schmidt and Kevin Shattenkirk, there could be as many as five spots up for grabs.
“I feel good for the young guys,” Kuznetsov said. “They know right now they have a couple of spots to fill. That’s always good challenge in training camp—when your young guys know they have a chance to play in the NHL, they are going to work hard.”
Kuznetsov, on the other hand, has arguably more security than any other Capital these days, allowing him to focus solely on being the best player he can be.
“Whenever summer is coming and you’re without deal, you have to think about some other things—it’s always tough,” he said. Now “I feel comfortable here. I love the city. I knew before I signed that I want to stay here.”
MORE CAPITALS: A slimmer looking Ovechkin returned to practice Tuesday
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