Capitals

Wilson says Kuznetsov has 'rekindled that joy for the game'

Capitals

Through three games, Alex Ovechkin leads the Capitals in points with six, but he's not alone. Tied with him is, surprisingly, Evgeny Kuznetsov, a player who many expected to be traded in the offseason. And yet, thus far he is playing at a level we have only seen from him sporadically since 2018.

Kuznetsov played at an elite level in the Cup run with 31 points in 24 games. He had a legitimate case for the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP, though it ultimately went to Ovechkin. That level of play carried into the following season as Kuznetsov tallied 15 points in his first 10 games. Since then, however, we have only seen flashes of that greatness. The 2018 postseason felt like a breakout performance, but by the end of the 2021 season, 2018 felt more like an anomaly.

But Kuznetsov seems to be playing at that level again, at least in the early going, and Tom Wilson has taken notice.

"I think he worked really hard this summer and took it very seriously and it's showing," Wilson said. "When he's going for our team he's a huge factor."

Wilson plays on the top line with Ovechkin and Kuznetsov and has noticed a huge difference in Kuznetsov already.

"I think he's having fun," Wilson said. "I think he's enjoying the game."

The 2021 season was a particularly rough one for Kuznetsov. Early in the season, he dealt with COVID-19 symptoms that kept him out a month. He tested positive a second time late in the season and ultimately finished with just 29 points in 41 games. The season was so bad that it led to a number of trade rumors in the offseason.

 

But Kuznetsov took it all in stride. He appeared happy and relaxed in camp and that has translated to a great start to the season.

Related: A bad turnover turned into a Kuznetsov confidence boost

"When I first met him and early on in his career like he was just a joy to be at the rink and he was so fun to be around, and I think you're starting to see that again a little bit," Wilson said. "You know, it is a job and day in and day out, 82 games, it can be a grind at times. It's the best job in the world, I love it, but I think he's just kind of rekindled that joy for the game."

Yes, it is a small sample size and the narrative around Kuznetsov will change quickly if the points dry up and he starts to struggle again. But, at the same time, Kuznetsov has six points in three games. Six points in three games is something he did not do at any time during the entire 2021 season.

So long as Kuznetsov is playing like this, his teammates know it's best to get him the puck and let him work.

"You just give him the puck and he takes care of the rest," Wilson said. "That seems to be my job is to get the puck in his hand. He wants it in his hands, I want it in his hands and good things happen."