The Capitals have a problem.
With a rapidly closing championship window, coming off a first-round Stanley Cup playoff loss, there is pressure to take advantage while Alex Ovechkin remains at the top of his game and Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby are still under contract.
No player was going to be watched more closely this upcoming season than center Evgeny Kuznetsov after an up-and-down campaign that left many in the organization frustrated.
That takes on an ominous note after Kuznetsov was suspended four years by the International Ice Hockey Federation after testing positive for cocaine at the World Championships in May while playing for Russia.
Kuznetsov set the bar so high during the Capitals’ 2018 Stanley Cup playoff run. He is a brilliant talent who arguably was the best player in the world during that two-month stretch. Ovechkin won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. Kuznetsov easily could have.
But things have gone sideways this summer. Kuznetsov and Russia won the bronze medal at the World Championships in Slovakia on May 26. One day later a video surfaced on Twitter showing Kuznetsov in a room where cocaine was clearly visible on a desk. He publically denied ever doing drugs. That was unwise.
According to the IIHF timeline, Kuznetsov had already taken a drug test that he would fail. The date? May 26 when Russia beat the Czech Republic in the bronze-medal game. He was provisionally suspended by the IIHF on June 13 and that was confirmed on Friday. He’ll at some point have to explain why he bothered lying about it at all, but in the end, that’s just a PR embarrassment of his own creation.
The NHL’s collective bargaining agreement seeks to direct players into treatment for what it labels “drugs of abuse” and not punishment. That’s admirable. But when a player’s performance nosedives and he later fails a drug test, it’s fair to ask how intertwined they are.
This isn’t marijuana, often used by professional athletes to ease pain or just relax. Cocaine still has a stigma attached to it. In recent years the NHL has acknowledged its increased use by players.
To his credit, Kuznetsov is taking advantage of the treatment programs offered by the NHLPA and has agreed to increased testing. He has been in Washington for weeks, much earlier than normal for European players, and is taking part in informal workouts at the Capitals’ headquarters in Arlington.
These are all good signs. We don’t know with absolute certainty why Kuznetsov used cocaine or how often he does or even if it negatively affected his play. It would be naïve to think he’s the only Capitals player dealing with this issue and it’s not about shaming drug use. This is serious stuff. But for Kuznetsov, it goes with a broader narrative: A gifted player who doesn’t always live up to the heavy expectations placed upon him.
His own general manager, Brian MacLellan, has acknowledged that on the record multiple times. Expecting Kuznetsov to match his 2018 playoff form for an entire season would be crazy. Few can do that. But his own teammates will privately say there is more to give, that they NEED Kuznetsov at his best for longer stretches. If they hadn’t seen it from him for months at a time before, it wouldn’t be so frustrating.
Kuznetsov said in the aftermath of the video release, which was taken in Las Vegas last December on a Capitals’ road trip there, that he made an error in judgment visiting some acquaintances in a hotel room and when he saw cocaine use going on, he left.
The video isn’t that definitive. Kuznetsov is seen laughing and joking with an unidentified person on a video call. Rolled up dollar bills are in front of him with a white powder substance visible. He doesn’t exactly seem uptight or in a hurry to leave.
Fast forward five months and you have the failed drug test to go with the video. One with real-world consequences. The NHL might not punish players for cocaine use, but Kuznetsov won’t be allowed to play for Russia for the balance of his prime. He just punted that away. If the NHL and the NHLPA come to an agreement about letting players participate in the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, Kuznetsov will not be there. That’s a devastating penalty.
Kuznetsov is still just 27, the vanguard of the younger Caps like Tom Wilson, 25, and Jakub Vrana, 23, who all must shoulder a bigger load with Ovechkin turning 34 next month and Backstrom turning 32 in November. Those two were great in the playoffs against Carolina last spring and the Capitals wasted the effort. They know they wasted it.
Washington can’t win another Cup without Kuznetsov playing close to the breathtaking level he found in 2018. But watch heads droop on the bench when he makes an awful drop pass just inside the blue line or gives up a great scoring chance simply because his intuitive hockey mind sees an even better one available. He is literally the worst player in the NHL regularly allowed to take faceoffs and it isn’t close.
It speaks to a lack of concern about the details of the game, a lack of seriousness. Lose a face-off and we’ll just “get the puck back in two seconds,” Kuznetsov told the Washington Post in a feature story in February.
Remember Kuznetsov’s infamous quote last October about not caring if he was ever in contention for a Hart Trophy? “To be MVP, you have to work hard 365 [days] in a year, but I’m not ready for that.”
From a player coming off an incredible postseason you let that slide. It isn’t quite what he meant and Kuznetsov is renowned for saying whatever the hell he wants. He’s a fascinating character, never boring, unselfish to a fault. Talk to him for any length of time and you get unique insights into the game.
But a drug suspension, even if it isn’t at the NHL level, undermines all of that. Misleading the organization about it does, too, especially when you know the truth is probably coming out. It’s all a little reckless. These people need to know they can count on you. That’s the price of being a great player, that’s the cost of immense talent. Kuznetsov let them down. He let himself down. This coming season is now about making amends.
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