Capitals

What's next for Kuzy after Caps' playoff exit?

Capitals
Evgeny Kuznetsov

As one of the Capitals' top two centers, Evgeny Kuznetsov is one of the most important players to the team's success.

He is also one of the most inconsistent players on the roster.

In 2021, Kuznetsov twice had COVID-19, was benched for a game and registered zero points in the playoffs.

“It wasn’t an easy one you know?" Kuznetsov said of the season after the Caps fell in five games to the Boston Bruins. "Tough year, where we want to be and it is always frustrating right? Everybody and every time you have a season like that you always want to go back as quick as possible to work and be successful next year so that is what I’m trying to do right now.”

The NHL season had barely gotten off the ground when Kuznetsov found himself on the league's COVID absence list the first time. Kuznetsov was added to the list on Jan. 21 when goalie Ilya Samsonov tested positive and it was found he was in a hotel room with Kuznetsov, Alex Ovechkin and Dmitry Orlov in violation of the league's health and safety protocols.

Kuznetsov ultimately contracted COVID-19 himself and dealt with symptoms over the course of the next few weeks. He played on Jan. 19 in Pittsburgh before being added to the absence list. He would not play again until Feb. 14.

When he did play, Kuznetsov hardly looked like the difference-maker the team needed. In 41 games, he recorded nine goals and 20 assists. That is a 58-point pace in a normal 82-game season, hardly the type of numbers you would expect from a player of Kuznetsov's caliber.

 

On May 3, Kuznetsov and Samsonov were benched for a game for being late to a team function. Soon after, both players landed on the COVID list again as Kuznetsov tested positive a second time. This second bout with COVID would ultimately keep Kuznetsov out of the lineup for 16 days and force him to miss the first two games of the team's series against the Boston Bruins.

"I get the COVID again and it is basically put me in a very tough position having to jump right into the playoffs after quarantine for 14 days," Kuznetsov said.

"You lost players for a minimum of 14 days and maybe 15 or 16 before they play a game, and that’s without conditioning, without being on the ice, without exercise," head coach Peter Laviolette said. "So when you’re talking about a top center and a possible top goaltender, a No. 1 goaltender, I think that those now become something that you’re dealing with inside of your locker room."

After so much time on the COVID list, Kuznetsov struggled to return to form and be a difference-maker on the ice.

“I think the season for Evgeny was inconsistent," Laviolette said in a postseason press conference this week. "It was marked by the probably the 30 plus days in COVID protocol, probably 35 days of being out of the lineup and again it is not just having him for those games, it is the aftermath of coming back and trying to find the speed and the pace and the skill in which he needs to attack the game so I don’t know he ever hit the gear or the stride he wanted to or had the impact on the game like he wanted to or that he wants to as a player and the importance of that I think is crucial for a team."

The 2021 season was unique in the challenges it presented players and perhaps it is unfair to single out Kuznetsov for his bad season. After all, he did contract COVID twice and we are still learning of the long-term effects the virus can have. To expect it to have no effect on him when he returned is simply unrealistic.

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"It's tough to evaluate his year," general manager Brian MacLellan said in postseason availability. "I mean, he had COVID twice. I don't fully understand the effects it has on players when they come back. There are rumored to have players throughout the league that have had it and have struggled to find it when they come back from COVID. I guess it's hard for us to determine what impact that had on his performance. It was inconsistent, I agree, throughout the year. We needed more from that position from that amount of salary that we expend on him, but it's tough to evaluate what effect that had on his performance.

 

"How does that affect an athlete aerobically?" MacLellan added. "So we're trying to figure it out. What part is that, what part is inconsistency? What part is the player?"

But MacLellan also didn't mince words about Kuznetsov's performance.

"I think it's been inconsistent for a few years here, and it's hurt our team," MacLellan said.

The issue with Kuznetsov is twofold. First, the inconsistent play cannot be ignored. Sure, COVID certainly took its toll in 2021, but after failing to play at an elite level over the last three seasons, the 2018 postseason now seems to be more of an anomaly than a reflection of the kind of player Kuznetsov should be expected to be.

Second, a number of the issues Kuznetsov has dealt with have been self-inflicted.

Kuznetsov was suspended for four years by the IIHF in 2019 after testing positive for cocaine.

While COVID was a virus with unknown effects, breaking health and safety protocols and getting benched for being late to a team function are not the actions of a player who learned his lesson from previous transgressions. 

When Washington was finally able to get over the postseason hump and win a Stanley Cup in 2018, Kuznetsov was the x-factor. He scored 32 points in 24 games during that postseason run. That's the most in a single postseason in franchise history and tied for the 19th most all-time across the NHL.

If he cannot raise his play to that elite level again then does he actually make the team better?

That question leaves MacLellan and Laviolette with a difficult decision to make regarding Kuznetsov's future in Washington.

"I think it's the key to our organization what decisions get made or how [Kuznetsov] plays or how he comes out of this," MacLellan said. "We won the Stanley Cup because we had a great 1-2 punch and [Lars Eller] in the third spot, so center depth is important. We need him to play at his highest ability, and if he can't play at his highest ability, we're not going to be a good team and we'd have to make some other decisions."