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Key Caps questions: Is Evgeny Kuznetsov a superstar?

Key Caps questions: Is Evgeny Kuznetsov a superstar?

The dog days of summer are officially here, but it's never too hot to talk some hockey.

Capitals Insider Tarik El-Bashir and Capitals correspondent JJ Regan are here to help you through the offseason doldrums. They will discuss key questions facing the Caps for the upcoming season as Washington prepares to defend its title for the first time in franchise history.

Today's question: Has Evgeny Kuznetsov made the jump from really good player to superstar?

Tarik: Yes, without a doubt, Evgeny Kuznetsov has made the leap from a very good player to a superstar.

And you know when it happened?

It happened over the course of 56 unforgettable days this past spring.

Kuzy has always possessed the talent to be one of the game’s most impactful players. His 83 regular season points, in fact, marked a career high and put him just inside the NHL’s top-20 in production.

He indeed had a very good regular season. But to me, superstars are the players who are in the national sports conversation. The guys who come to mind immediately when you think about a particular team. Guys who can single-handedly break open a game or a playoffs series. Guys who’ve received a major NHL award or have been recognized with a trip to the All-Star Game. For the Caps, those guys have been Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby for the last several years.

Kuznetsov, 26, became a member of that group in the playoffs.

Ovechkin took home the Conn Smythe Trophy, but it easily could have gone to Kuznetsov. I know because I wrestled with the decision to put Ovi over Kuzy for days prior to casting my vote.

Here’s why I had such a tough time:

  • Kuznetsov led the Stanley Cup-winning team (and the entire postseason) with 32 points…five more than Ovechkin.
  • Kuznetsov scored arguably the most important goal of the run…Game 6…in OT…vs. the archrival and two-time defending champion Penguins. Without that clutch tally, we’re having a different discussion today.
  • In addition to being the most productive Capital during the playoffs, I also felt he was the most consistent from game to game. In fact, Kuznetsov recorded at least a point in all but one of the Caps’ final 13 postseason contests. And that one game? Game 2 vs. Las Vegas, and he left after just a few shifts due to a shoulder injury.

Kuznetsov is no longer the dude who centers Ovi’s line. Kuznetsov is now his own dude. He’s progressed from a star-in-the-making to just a star.

And here’s the best part: when fans outside of Washington get a load of his, um, weirdly unique and outrageously funny personality, his popularity is going to explode.

JJ: Sorry Tarik, but you are wrong. Dead wrong.

Oops, I should clarify. You're not wrong about Kuznetsov being a superstar, you're wrong because it didn't happen last spring. He already was one.

I don't know what people have been watching over the past few years, but in my book, Kuznetsov graduated from very good to superstar a long time ago, it just took the 2018 playoff run for most people to notice.

Perhaps we have a different definition of "superstar." To me, national recognition has no bearing on whether a player is a superstar talent. Heck, Backstrom has been a superstar for years with hardly any recognition at all. Maybe expectations were high for Kuznetsov given how long Washington had to wait to get him out of Russia and how good he was in the KHL and because of that, people withheld praise. But the fact is he has shown throughout his career, and not just last spring, that he is a superstar.

At the age of 22, Kuznetsov had a breakout performance in the 2015 playoffs with five goals and seven points in 14 games. We all remember his series-clinching goal against the Penguins, but that was not his first. He also scored another clutch, series-clinching goal in Game 7 against the New York Islanders in 2015. During this year's playoff run, I asked him a question about the Pittsburgh overtime goal and I called it the biggest of his career. He corrected me and told me he still considered the game-winner against Jaroslav Halak and the Islanders to be his biggest.

In only his second full season in the league, Kuznetsov rattled off 77 points to lead the Caps. He finished tied for ninth in the entire NHL that year ahead of other superstars like Vladimir Tarasenko, Anze Kopitar, Tyler Seguin and two guys named Ovechkin and Backstrom.

Yes, there was the year in which he managed only two points in 12 playoff games, but his repeated success to this point in his career shows that postseason was very much the exception and not the norm.

So to answer the question, yes, Kuznetsov is absolutely a superstar. It just took awhile for people to notice.

Other key questions

How will the Caps look different under Todd Reirden?
Will the Caps suffer a Stanley Cup hangover?
Can Alex Ovechkin still challenge for another Rocket Richard Trophy?

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Do the Caps have the offense to win the Stanley Cup?

Do the Caps have the offense to win the Stanley Cup?

The bye week and the all-star break are upon us meaning we will have to wait until Jan. 27 for the Capitals to take the ice again for a game. With the season over halfway done and the Feb. 24 trade deadline rapidly approaching, the focus of the season now shifts towards the playoffs.

Washington has certainly done enough at this point to show they are a playoff team, but just how good are they? Are they a true contender or are they destined for an early exit?

Over the next few days, I will examine the team to answer if it is good enough on offense, defense and in net to win a Cup and, if not, what they must do to improve by April.

Today’s question: Do the Caps have the offense to win the Stanley Cup?

Team stats
3.55 goals per game (1st in the NHL)
20.3-percent power play (13th in the NHL)

Goal leaders
1. Alex Ovechkin 34
2. Jakub Vrana 22
3. T.J. Oshie 18

Assist leaders
1. John Carlson 47
2. Nicklas Backstrom 29
3. Evgeny Kuznetsov 26

Point leaders
1. John Carlson 60
2. Alex Ovechkin 50
3. Evgeny Kuznetsov 42

Just in case you forgot about Ovechkin, he just let everyone know that yes, he is still outrunning Father Time with eight goals in the past three games. He remains one of the top scorers in the league, that is beyond dispute and so is this team's the top-six.

Backstrom, Wilson, Vrana, Kuznetsov and Oshie round out one of the best top two lines in the NHL. There are only a few minor concerns with this group.

Vrana and Kuznetsov have proven to be streaky performers. When they are hot, they are among the top offensive players in the NHL. Vrana is actually tied with David Pastrnak for third in the NHL in even-strength goals with 21. He is as dangerous a goal-scorer as just about anyone in the league. And everyone knows how good Kuznetsov can be at his peak. Just look at the 2018 Cup run.

You just have to cross your fingers and hope Vrana and Kuznetsov don’t get cold in the postseason because when their production tapers off, it craters.

Moving on to the bottom-six, let’s start with the fourth line because it is easier. Brendan Leipsic, Nic Dowd and Garnet Hathaway is one of, if not the outright best fourth line in hockey. They are able to hem opponents into the offensive zone and allow very little in the way of scoring opportunities. If you put any credence into things like Corsi, Nic Dowd is the best on the team with a Corsi-For percentage of 57.22 while Leipsic is 54.04 and Hathaway is 54.43. In a nutshell, what that means is this line is generating a heck of a lot more offensive opportunities than it is allowing which is a huge asset to have for a fourth line.

What’s more, these guys are the kind of players you hate to play against. Hathaway and Leipsic both play with an edge and Leipsic has a fair amount of speed as well. They have to make sure they limit the penalties they take, but otherwise this line is a huge asset.

That brings us to the third line.

While the offense is starting to pick up slightly, overall the numbers have just not been there. Lars Eller is doing fine with 11 goals and 16 assists, but Richard Panik is having a tough first year with five goals and five assists while Carl Hagelin has only three goals and eight assists and that’s including the two goals he scored in the past week.

Even as the line continues to improve, I do not think at its peak it is going to prove to be as good offensively as once hoped.

The third line has definitely found a role as a shutdown line, however, which is how Reirden has been utilizing them of late, using them to shut-down one of the opposition’s top lines both to limit their offense and also to free up Ovechkin’s line by getting it away from that matchup.

That’s easier to do at home, now Reirden has to figure out just how to best utilize the third line one the road where it is tougher to get the matchups you want.

Overall, however, this line is trending in the right direction. The power play, however, is not.

Though it ranks 13th in the NHL, that percentage is being propped up by a good start. Since Dec. 1, the power play ranks 30th in the NHL at 14.1-percent. The offense has just been non-existent. The struggles have clearly gone to the head of the players because it becomes a comedy of errors on the ice every time the team gets the man advantage. Reirden has tried Vrana on the top unit in Kuznetsov’s spot, but that spot is not well suited for Vrana as he is a sniper and Kuznetsov plays primarily around the goal line where shots are hard to come by. Kuznetsov on the second unit is largely wasted as there is not enough scoring talent on that unit for him to set up.

The result is two power play units playing without confidence and not producing while also allowing far too many shorthanded goals.

The verdict: Yes, the Caps have the offense to win the Cup.

In terms of the personnel, it is hard to get better than what the Caps have. The top two lines are loaded with talent and the fourth line is the best at what it does. The offense is lacking on the third line, but Reirden has found a role for it in which it can still have a positive impact on the game and its offensive production seems to be improving.

The only real concern is the power play, not only because it is completely ineffective but because the team is pressing so hard it has allowed five shorthanded goals, tied for the most in the league. As bad as it is, however, I think this is a case of frustration making things worse. With the personnel this team has, there is no reason for it to be producing at only 14.1-percent. Once they string a few goals together, things will turn around. I don’t think it will be among the most potent in the NHL, but I do think this is a low point and a natural progression will occur.

After the power play, however, it is hard to find a more potent offense than the one assembled in Washington.

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Capitals hosting Rock The Rink skate and watch parties around DMV

Capitals hosting Rock The Rink skate and watch parties around DMV

The Capitals may not be participating in Stadium Series this year, but the team is embracing outdoor hockey around Washington for spirited game day fun.

The Caps are hosting Rock The Rink skates at The Wharf, Penatgon Row, Rockville Town Square and The Avenue at White Marsh on select game days from January to March 2020. Fans attending these events can wear Capitals jerseys or gear to get either $5 off admission or free skate rentals.

The Wharf

Jan. 18 at 1 p.m., Jan. 31 at 6 p.m., and Feb 17. at 1 p.m.

Transit Pier will boast a Capitals-paneled ice rink with an ice resurfacer, trivia contests, giveaways, along with a DJ. The Capitals Campire will also boast Adirondack chairs around a fire to roast marshmallows for smores in front of a 14-foot jumbotron screen to watch the Capitals games. 

Pentagon Row

Feb. 27 at 7 p.m. and March 9 at 6 p.m.

These skates will feature Slapshot, giveaways, a DJ and Capitals-centic specials at local restaurants. The Caps games will also be on at surrounding bars. 

The Avenue at White March

Feb. 7 at 6 p.m.

This event will feature Slapshot, giveaways, a DJ and Capitals-centic specials at local restaurants.

Rockville Town Square

Jan. 31 at 5:30 p.m. and March 5 at 6 p.m.

In addition to the above fun, Rockville native and Capitals hockey ambassador Haley Skarupa will be there on Jan. 31. You can watch the Capitals game at local bars as well. 

Fans attending these events or using local outdoor rinks this season are encouraged to post about it on social media by tagging @capitals and using the hashtag #RockTheRink to enter themselves for a chance to win prizes.

Caps slept through the first 40 minutes, they did not give Holtby much help though he was bad in his own right and Vrana sure did show something with the game-winning goal.

As for no penalties...not so much.

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