When hockey finally returns in 2021, the Capitals will have their sights set on the Stanley Cup. Every team enters each season with questions that need to be answered. We are looking at the biggest questions facing the Capitals in 2021.
Today's question: How will Evgeny Kuznetsov play in the first year under Peter Laviolette?
"I think we had an underperformance from a couple guys in the last two playoff series," general manager Brian MacLellan said after the firing of head coach Todd Reirden.
He added, "I think consistent compete level from some guys would help our goal moving forward and I think you know those buttons do need to be pushed. We need to hold guys accountable when they don’t perform up to standards."
When Laviolette was hired, MacLellan noted his ability to hold players accountable was "a big reason why we hired him."
Kuznetsov was never specifically mentioned by name, but if you look at his stats he would certainly seem to qualify as one of those inconsistent players.
In the Stanley Cup run in 2018, Kuznetsov was brilliant. He scored 32 points in 24 games and, though the award ultimately went to Alex Ovechkin, had a strong case for the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. If you thought Kuznetsov would build on that postseason and become one of the elite players in the NHL, you weren't alone. Yet, he has struggled to reach that level of play since.
In 2018-19, he scored 72 points in 76 games, followed by six points in seven playoff games and only one goal. In 2019-20, he scored 52 points in 63 games and five points in eight postseason games. To make matters worse, penalties have been an issue. In 2019-20, Kuznetsov ranked third on the team in minors taken with 20 for the season.
The level of play we saw from Kuznetsov in the 2018 playoffs is hard to maintain, but when you watch him play it is clear there is more to his game that we are not seeing on a consistent basis. If the 2018 playoffs are at one end of the spectrum and the last two seasons are at the other, I would argue Kuznetsov's level of talent is much closer to the 2018 postseason than what we have seen since. The ability to elevate his game on a consistent basis is just not there.
Barry Trotz was the head coach when the team won the Stanley Cup in 2018. Todd Reirden was the head coach the past two years. Trotz is known more as a disciplinarian while Reirden is a players' coach.
To be fair, Kuznetsov's inconsistencies existed before the 2018 postseason including in the 2016 playoffs when Kuznetsov tallied a grand total of two points in 12 playoff games, but when MacLellan referenced "underperformance" among the players, Kuznetsov was the first player I thought of.
You never know exactly how a player and coach will perform together, but clearly Trotz was able to reach Kuznetsov and unlock his potential in 2018 in a way that Reirden could not. If accountability was part of that equation at all, Laviolette will certainly find more success with Kuznetsov. The only question is how long will it take?
Kuznetsov's 2018 season was the best of his four years with Trotz. Will it take Laviolette that long to crack Kuznetsov? That's an issue because certainly the team's championship window is not going to remain open for that long.
The other question we have to ask is what if we are wrong about Kuznetsov? Really the 2017-18 season and 2018 postseason is the only year in which we have seen Kuznetsov play up to what many believe to be his true potential. What if we are wrong about him and that year was just an anamoly? What if he's not under-achieving every other year, but rather he over-achieved in that one year? I do not believe that is the case because Kuznetsov's talent on the ice is just so evident and we see glimpses of it all the time even if it's just glimpses, but this does bear watching in Laviolette's first year.
Will Kuznetsov thrive under a coach who holds him more accountable rather than the last coach and keeps his game honest, or will it be more of the same from Kuznetsov and he is simply the victim of unfair expectations that he set after 2018?
With Kuznetsov now 28 years old and in his prime, this season may provide the definitive answer once and for all.