With Evgeny Kuznetsov set to return to the Capitals’ lineup on Tuesday after serving a three-game suspension, he faced the media on Monday and gave thoughtful answers on what this experience has been like.
The same player who last year said he could not challenge for the Hart Trophy because it would require him to work hard 365 days a year sounded much different talking about how sitting out three games gave him a great appreciation for being in the lineup. He also spoke on how early success in a season is not as important as building through playing the right way as a team.
Kuznetsov was saying all the right things, but if there is one thing he does not want to talk about anymore, it’s his stats.
“The last year was the 70 points year,” Kuznetsov said. “Terrible year for me, I look for bounce back.”
Despite his words, Kuznetsov’s smile and tone belied his true feelings.
Kuznetsov finished last season with 72 points in 76 games. While that would qualify as a great season for most players, Kuznetsov revealed he is not like most players during the team’s run to the Stanley Cup in 2018. In 24 playoff games, Kuznetsov led the league with 32 points and was playing like the best player in the world. Had he won the Conn Smythe over Alex Ovechkin, it would have been hard to argue against.
Kuznetsov produced 1.33 points per game during that postseason run, but that level of production proved elusive in 2018-19. He seemed to pick up where he left off to start the season with 15 points in 10 games, but those totals were inflated by 13 power play points. His production tapered off quite a bit after that. His 72 points that season tied him for 46th in the league. He followed the season up with only one goal and five assists in seven playoff games against the Carolina Hurricanes.
Kuznetsov was being tongue-in-cheek Monday about his stats, but when pressed further on the subject and whether he felt he had another gear beyond a 72-point season, Kuznetsov vented.
“Every player who know me, they know I never focus on the goals, I never focus on the points,” Kuznetsov said. “I've been always focusing on the team game and always enjoyed the sharing the puck, having the fun during the game. But I realize in 2019 it's all about the [expletive] goals and the [expletive] assists right now. That's it. If you're making the points, that's it. You will be so cool."
On the one hand, you can understand where Kuznetsov is coming from. Distribution is a major part of the game and something in which Kuznetsov excels. There is also a lot more to hockey than points and a player can have a huge impact on a game that may not translate to the scoresheet. Most people are not 20 goals scorers after all and still have to find ways to help the team and impact a game.
On the other hand, Kuznetsov is not most people. Last year’s 72-point season is considered a down year for him because his skill level says he is capable of much more. It is no coincidence that the year the team won the Cup came when he was producing at a pace of over a point per game. That’s just how important he is to the team.
One other thing Kuznetsov is tired of hearing? That he needs to shoot more.
“If I have a chance to shoot it and my partner will be open net, I'm going to still try and pass it for him,” he said. “I'm not going to change the way I play hockey. Yes, I did some little change. I'm trying to grow as a player on the ice, but I'm not going to change the way I play on the ice. I always going to try to play for my partner, will always try to share the puck. That's how I show respect to my teammates when I'm sharing the puck like that.”
Kuznetsov will return to the Caps’ lineup on Tuesday when the team hosts the Dallas Stars. All eyes will be on him as he plays on the third line with Carl Hagelin and Richard Panik.
Whatever happens, though, don’t judge Kuznetsov’s return just on what he does on the scoresheet. That’s not what he’s focused on.
“All the people focus in on the points, right?” he said. “You get the salary from the points, but I still want to enjoy the hockey and I still want to share the puck.”
The question is, can the Caps be successful when it matters if Kuznetsov does not focus on his points?
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