Capitals coach Todd Reirden was blunt when the NHL suspended Evgeny Kuznetsov for the first three games of the regular season.
“It’s a career-defining time in his life,” Reirden said.
Circumspect on Thursday before the NHL announced the suspension for what was deemed “inappropriate conduct” – i.e. lying to his club and NHL investigators during an investigation into Kuznetsov’s drug use – Reirden did not hold back Saturday when the news became official.
“Him and my relationship is one that it’s important that I am there for him,” Reirden said. “But I also make sure that I understand that he’s accountable for what’s happened and realizing that how he reacts to this adversity is what’s important to me.”
Thursday was a day his Washington teammates expressed support for Kuznetsov, who failed a drug test on May 26 at the World Championships in Slovakia playing for Russia. The day after a video surfaced on social media that showed Kuznetsov in a hotel room in Las Vegas with a white powdery substance on the table in front of him.
It was all a bit reckless and Kuznetsov expressed remorse on Saturday to his teammates, coaches, management and fans. He will pay the price with a four-year suspension in international play by the International Ice Hockey Federation and missing the first three games of the NHL season. No one is happy about it.
Reirden said he and Kuznetsov have had multiple conversations since the IIHF announced the suspension on Aug. 23. So far, Kuznetsov has taken the advice to heart. He takes part in an NHLPA drug treatment and education program. He showed up much earlier than normal for on-ice workouts in Washington before training camp.
In many ways, he is the same old Kuznetsov. A happy-go-lucky personality, a world-class center, who never takes anything too seriously: From competing for Hart Trophies to winning faceoffs to looking ahead to the Stanley Cup playoffs. Expect him to change all of that at age 27 is unrealistic. He’s an adult.
But the suspension, the drug use, has chastened him some. He embarrassed his family. He has worried his teammates. They know the level Kuznetsov can reach. We all saw it during the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs when he was arguably the best player in the world for two months.
Kuznetsov has reached a fork in the road in his career. He has Hall-of-Fame talent. But he can coast to 70 points for the next few years and maybe get a pass. But he’ll never be as good as he should be. It is the dilemma of any brilliant talent. It is the one Kuznetsov faces now: How good do you want to be?
“It’s a difficult thing that he’s going through. But it’s absolutely an amazing opportunity to really change the course of how things will be for him the rest of his life,” Reirden said. “That’s where we’re at right now. Understanding that he’s going to be an example. How he reacts will be how people speak about this a year from now, five years from now and 15 years from now. This is a life-changing event.”
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