In a year where the Capitals have struggled with injuries, coronavirus cases and the inconsistencies that come with an injury-plagued roster, Evgeny Kuznetsov has been a rock.
Through the first half of his season, Kuznetsov has 43 points (13 goals, 30 assists) and has re-established developed an electric connection with Alex Ovechkin on the Capitals' first line. His contributions earned him his second All-Star bid; his first in six years.
Kuznetsov has always had All-Star-level talent, but he simply hasn't been consistent enough since Washington won a Stanley Cup in 2018. Following a disappointing 2020 campaign, head coach Peter Laviolette noticed a different player that showed up to camp wearing No. 92.
"He came in and had a great summer. He had a great training camp, worked really hard in the summer, came into camp and played really well for us right from the start," Laviolette told The Sports Junkies Tuesday."
It was Kuznetsov's commitment over the summer that stood out to Laviolette, who acknowledged the center's uneven play over the previous two years. Despite his veteran status and resume in the NHL, Kuznetsov had a "first-to-arrive, last-to-leave" vibe about him during the offseason.
"Sometimes, you just don't like the way a year goes or you don't like the way you're playing or where you're at," Laviolette said. "He made a commitment, he trained all summer, he stayed on the ice all summer. He's not a rookie anymore, he's not 21 years old, and yet he was there at the rink and he was on the ice way before others, just skating and getting in shape and came back and just wanted to have a good year, wanted to make a difference. You can see that he's having fun and he's been a real impact player for us."
If you're looking for a reason why Kuznetsov made the All-Star game, though, his production with Ovechkin might be first on that list. Not only is Kuzy on pace for a career year from a points perspective, but Ovechkin is having a Hart Trophy-caliber season too.
Ovechkin has 58 points through 42 games, with as many goals as assists. He's a captain in the All-Star game and has anchored Washington's offense through their trials against the injury bug. For Laviolette, you can't talk about how good Ovechkin has been without mentioning Kuznetsov.
"While it's been kind of crazy with our lineup through the first 46 games, [Kuzentsov] and [Ovechkin] as a pair have been fantastic," Laviolette said. "Probably one of the top duos in the league if you go by and look at it just based on production, you take the top two players off each line and they've been together pretty much the whole time.
"Ovi's having a year, but I think in order for him to have a year, you have to have a center-man that also is playing really well. Somebody who can distribute the puck and play at a high level and with speed, and I think Kuzy from the start has been a big reason why we sit where we sit based on the turmoil that we've had with the lineup with regard to injuries and guys missing and long term injuries and stuff like that."
The Capitals have just two games before the All-Star break and sit in fourth place in the Metropolitan division. If they're going to climb in the standings and make some noise in the playoffs, they'll need this version of Kuznetsov for the rest of the way.