Three games into the season, Evgeny Kuznetsov looked like he had picked up right where he left off.
Just a few months before hand, Kuznetsov led the team in the playoffs with 32 points in 24 games to help the Capitals earn their first Stanley Cup in franchise history. The postseason appeared to be a breakout performance. Based on how he played, there was no reason not to think he could be among the league’s top scorers in the 2018-19 season.
On Oct. 10, Kuznetsov recorded a four-point night with a goal and three assists. Surrounded by the media in the locker room after the win, Kuznetsov was asked about being a top player in the league and he made some head scratching comments.
“I don't give a shit about that,” he said. “To be MVP, you have to work hard 365 [days] in a year, but I'm not ready for that. I want to have fun and I want to make those risky plays when sometimes you don't have to play and you guys don't understand every time those plays. It's not easy to make. But to be MVP in this league, you have to play even better. You have to go next level. It's not easy. More important, you have to stay focused 365, but that's not my style.”
As curious as those comments seemed, it was easy to dismiss them at the time as Kuznetsov being Kuznetsov. He is nothing if not a character and, with three goals and four assists in three games, it seemed as if this was his way of being humble and saying he wasn’t at the same level as some of the NHL’s elite playmakers yet.
Fast-forward to February and those comments look and feel very different.
In 47 games, Kuznetsov has 45 points. A respectable number, but far off from the 1.5 point-per-game pace he set in October. His 45 points do not even put him among the top 50 in the NHL. He has only 10 goals and only two of those have come at 5-on-5. He also ranks dead last in the league in faceoff win percentage (38.6) among players who have taken at least 500 faceoffs.
Kuznetsov earned the ire of head coach Todd Reirden on Sunday and was benched along with Dmitrij Jaskin in the first period against the Boston Bruins after taking an early penalty. Kuznetsov currently ranks second on the team and tied for 10th in the NHL with 21 minor penalties.
“That's an area we have to get better in, as we've taken far too many minor penalties with our sticks,” Reirden said after the game. “That's been discussed and that's the best thing for our team. We have to be more disciplined if we're going to have success moving forward from here.”
For his part, Kuznetsov said he understood the message Reirden was sending.
"Maybe for some players they need the couple words after that, they maybe don't understand what's the reason,” Kuznetsov said. “But me and Coach, we're on the same page, and sometimes you don't have to say anything. I already get it."
But the penalties are only a part of a larger issue and that issue is that the Kuznetsov just has not played like the dominant player we saw in the playoffs.
While Reirden has tried not to comment on Kuznetsov’s struggles specifically, general manager Brian MacLellan was far more blunt.
“I think for our organization, for our team to do well, we need [Kuznetsov] at the top of his game,” he said. “Depending on how you look at it, it was one or two, [Alex Ovechkin] and him for MVP last year in the playoffs. That’s why we did well because Kuznetsov played well. I think if he’s not going to play at that level, we’re not going to do as well. He’s that important to our team.”
Kuznetsov’s importance is highlighted by the team’s recent struggles. Washington has only two wins in its last 10 games. In those eight losses, Kuznetsov was held to only four total points. In the two wins, Kuznetsov recorded two points in each game.
As MacLellan noted, the 2018 postseason run shows just how important Kuznetsov is to the team’s success. It’s no surprise that as he has struggled this season, so has Washington.
But there’s a difference between hockey in the regular season and in the playoffs where every day is a battle to survive and advance and that gets to the heart of what Kuznetsov was saying about staying focused. That motivation of the playoffs helps Kuznetsov focus and raise his game which is why he has not been as dominant for much of the season.
“When you play that type of hockey when one mistake will cost you win, that's those type of games is easy to play when you know you're just into the game,” he said. “But when you come into the game, you know one mistake, OK, we're going to have chance to get back, right? In the playoff, I feel like the one mistake could turn a series a different way, right? When the one moment, you play for that one moment, that's harder to play, but at the same time it's more excited to play for that.”
“I always believe it's so easy to find your game, right, but it's hard to hold it,” Kuznetsov added. “When you're going to find your game, you've got to hold for that. But sometimes it's gonna take one game, sometimes it take 30 games. You never know when you're gonna find the game.”
Now the Caps sit in second place in the Metropolitan Division, only two points behind the division-leading New York Islanders and only six points ahead of the ninth place Buffalo Sabres. Like it or not, the playoffs are not a guarantee and the games are starting to become more and more important. With 29 games left to go in the season, the Caps are at a crossroads and the direction this team takes will depend largely on how Kuznetsov performs.
Is he ready to stay focused and go to that “next level” that the Caps need to be successful or is he still finding his game? The answer may well determine the team’s fate this season and in the playoffs.
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