The Capitals have always had high expectations for Evgeny Kuznetsov. Whether or not those were met fluctuates by season, but they’ve always known he’s a high-end player in the NHL when he’s at his best.
And after one day of interviews at MedStar Capitals Iceplex in Ballston, it’s clear the Capitals not only want Kuznetsov at his best, they’ll need him at his best.
Nicklas Backstrom is considered week-to-week with a hip injury, only adding to the questions surrounding the Capitals’ center position entering the 2021-22 regular season. If Backstrom isn't able to go to start the season (and there isn't any indication of when he could be ready), Kuznetsov will be the team's only entrenched top six center.
Now, Kuznetsov says he’s feeling good — mentally and physically — and ready to put last season, and every problem it came with, behind him.
“The goal is for me to get my smile back in the game, and if I don’t smile in the game that means something bad, we don’t play good and for me it was always important to see guys happy, to see smiles during the game,” a cheery Kuznetsov said Thursday.
Kuznetsov played in 41 games last season, but was placed on the COVID list twice and generally was inconsistent with his play throughout the year. He put up just 2.6 points per 60 minutes, the lowest mark for him since the 2016-17 season. He finished with 29 points in 41 games.
It’s no secret the Capitals were and are a better team with Kuznetsov in the lineup, but now depending on Backstrom’s hip, they might need him in the lineup to merely be a competitive team.
“Evgeny and I have had about as honest a conversation as you can have since I’ve been here,” coach Peter Laviolette said. “He’s in a really good spot right now, he looks extremely fit, healthy, ready to play. I think his mind is in a really good spot and we’ll be counting on him. He’s really gonna get an opportunity to take hold and show what he can do.”
With the future looking positive for Kuznetsov, he’s ready to forget last season ever happened. Well, sort of.
With two COVID-absences that happened during the season, it was hard for him to ever get his footing during the year. That led to trade rumors throughout the year and a feeling of uncertainty surrounding anything Kuznetsov did.
“It was one of the years you want to forget but at the same time you want to remember,” Kuznetsov said. “It is like when you lose the game in the playoffs or any Game 7, you sit in the locker room and feel that pain and next year you don’t wanna feel that pain again so you can use that as motivation, you can use that as a target, as a goal.”
When asked if he was surprised to still be in Washington, Kuznetsov said he wasn’t.
“No, absolutely not,” Kuznetsov said. “It is part of the business, right? Just remember it is a business, right? It is not whatever guy wants to do or people or fans, it’s a business and we have to adjust to that and I am happy that I am here and I’m mentally here. That is what is most important to me. It’s not just that I’m here to get paid or I’m here to play hockey and go home and enjoy my life. For me it was very important to mentally be here and like I said, I felt what I felt last year and that is a good memory in my head.”
The trade rumors, clearly, never came to fruition and the Capitals star remained in Washington. Now the focus is on the upcoming season, and the Capitals like what they see so far.
“I’ve had a few conversations with him, he seems to be in a good spot,” Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said. “I like where he’s at mentally, physically. He’s come here in really good shape. He’s added some good weight, strength wise. Looks to be excited to play this season. I think we’re all looking for a good response for him and a good year."
Of course, the proof will be in Kuznetsov’s play — of which he’ll get plenty of minutes to evaluate him on.
But with the COVID year gone, with the trade rumors (for now) quieted and a wide open spot to be the team’s top center, Kuznetsov is ready to put last year behind him. He just doesn’t want to forget it ever happened.
“I don’t want to look for excuses, you know,” Kuznetsov said when asked if he felt like himself. “It’s nice to wake up every day and be able to breathe nice and be able to push yourself in the practice 100 percent and breathing for us, the wind, is very important. Like physically I am in very good shape right now and you can judge my game right now for sure.”