The Stanley Cup playoffs were a showcase for Evgeny Kuznetsov in 2018. They were a exercise in frustration in 2019 for the Capitals center.
Kuznetsov had a goal and five assists in the first-round playoff loss to the Carolina Hurricanes. He scored in Game 7. But the team was also out-shot decisively when he was on the ice during the regular season, and that only got worse in the Carolina series.
A player who arguably could have won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in 2018 after the Capitals won the Stanley Cup instead faced some heat that he hadn’t done enough as their title defense came to an early end last week. Is that fair? Probably not. But that’s also life when a player sets the bar as high as Kuznetsov did last spring.
“If I'm gonna say I'm perfect, I don't wanna grow. That's not true,” Kuznetsov said. “You want to get better every day like a hockey player, like a person. It doesn't matter who you are, you want to get better, right? It's pretty hard to get better when everything's good, when everyone happy…But when you lost a Game 7 at home in double OT, that's the pain you don't want to feel again."
So what went wrong? Certainly, Kuznetsov was challenged. He spent 41.2 percent of his time at even strength going against Carolina center Sebastian Aho’s top line during the seven-game series. Another 26 percent of his ice time was against Jordan Staal and the Hurricanes’ second line.
In reality, Kuznetsov played them to almost a draw despite being on the ice for 60 shots against to 43 for in 101 minutes, 55 seconds of even-strength ice time. Kuznetsov was on the ice in Game 7 when Teuvo Taravainen scored to cut Washington’s lead to 3-2 with 3:23 left in the second period.
But just a few minutes earlier he’d made the defensive play that led to his own wrister for a goal that put the Capitals ahead 3-1. He also had the primary assist in Game 2 with a beautiful pass to Brooks Orpik for the game-winner in overtime. The only other times he was on for goals against came in Game 2 when Aho tied it 2-2 and late in Game 6 when the net was empty.
A goal and five assists in seven games isn’t bad. But Kuznetsov had 32 points in 24 playoff games the year before to lead all scorers. He had the overtime series clincher against Pittsburgh in the second round. He became the "Bird Man" with his celebrations. It was hard to match all of that.
“We were spoiled last year with how [Kuznetsov] played in the playoffs,” coach Todd Reirden said. “That’s the standard that he showed us and the standard that he’s going to be held to now. That’s part of growing as a player – understanding what’s expected of you. He understood that as a player. He didn’t feel that he met that. And he didn’t.”
Reirden spoke in the immediate aftermath of the Game 7 loss. Kuznetsov had the primary assist on Orpik’s overtime goal, a T.J. Oshie goal also in Game 2 and Alex Ovechkin power-play goals in Game 1 and Game 5. He did not have a point in the three losses in Raleigh. He was on the ice for three even-strength goals and two against if you take out the empty-netter.
In some ways, that inconsistency mirrored Kuznetsov’s season. It’s hard to complain when one of your top two centers has 72 points in 76 games (21 goals, 51 assists). Kuznetsov tied his career best in shots (193). His shooting percentage dipped some (10.9 percent), but was just off his career average (11.3 percent). But the Capitals believe he can be better than 46th in the NHL in scoring.
At age 27 next season – his birthday is May 19th- Kuznetsov will need to be better if Washington plans to stay on top of the Metropolitan Division and again be a Stanley Cup contender.
“I think the frustration from my point - or the organization’s point - is there’s a top 10 player in the League in there and when he’s on it’s a lot of fun to watch and our team is a lot better,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. “And when the inconsistency is there, I think everybody gets a little frustrated because you want Top 10 Kuzy.”
Even if faceoffs aren’t everything, you’d also rather not have a center struggle the way Kuznetsov did in the circle. There were 49 players who took 1,000 or more faceoffs this season. Kuznetsov won 38.6 percent, which was by far the worst of those. Columbus’ Pierre-Luc Dubois, who ranked 48th, was still at 43.4 percent. Kuznetsov lost 231 more faceoffs (627) than he won (396). He wasn’t close.
Kuznetsov insisted the six games he missed after a concussion Nov. 14 in a game at Winnipeg didn’t affect him. His “Russian machine never breaks” comment might have been the best of breakdown day. But at the time of the concussion he had six goals and 15 assists through the first 17 games of the season. The expectations, as always, were high that would continue all year, and in his final 58 games, Kuznetsov had 15 goals and 36 assists.
Again, not bad. But the Capitals and Kuznetsov want more in 2019-20. With goalie Braden Holtby and center Nicklas Backstrom heading into the final year of their contracts and most of Washington’s top players now 30 or older, it’s time for Kuznetsov to make that step once and for all.
"When you win a lot of games, you're not growing. You think, 'Ah, I will be all right,' and that's probably the problem when you're playing on a good team,” Kuznetsov said. “When you win a lot of games, you feel teammates, they always got your back and you're kind of loose a little bit. That's probably the biggest part for me I have to learn: To still look for the challenges, still look for the motivation.”
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