With the Capitals’ 2015-16 season now in the rearview mirror, we conclude our numerical player-by-player roster analysis today.
No. 92 Evgeny Kuznetsov
Age: 24 (turns 25 on May 19, 2017)
Penalty minutes: 32
Time on ice: 17:24
Playoff stats: 12 games, 1 goal, 1 assist, minus-4, 8 PIM, 39 shots, 17:26
Contract status: One year remaining on 2-year, $6 million contract ($3 million cap hit, $3.4 million salary in 2016-17).
During a regular season in which he played all 82 games, Evgeny Kuznetsov blossomed into one of the NHL’s brightest young stars, becoming the first player not named Alex Ovechkin or Nicklas Backstrom to lead the Caps in scoring since Ovechkin arrived in Washington in 2005.
Kuznetsov finished fourth in the NHL with 57 assists and tied for ninth in points with 77, averaging 0.94 points per game.
But in playoff series against the Flyers and Penguins, Kuznetsov’s magical stick fell silent with just one goal and one assist in 12 games for a 0.17 point per game average.
“I think for him, maybe he ran out of gas a little bit,” Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said. “He put in a good regular season and I don’t know that he finished the year that well offensively. I think it’s playing 100 games.”
Including five preseason games and 12 playoff games, Kuznetsov played in 99 games for the Capitals last season and added six more with Russia in the World Championships for a total of 106 games.
Kuznetsov also played in 97 games for the Caps in 2014-15 (three preseason, 80 regular season, 14 playoff) but MacLellan said the Russian center did not warrant the same attention as he did this season.,
“The previous year, you could say he finished strong, but the first part of the year wasn’t as hard on him, I don’t think,” MacLellan said. “He was learning and finding his way. This year put a little more pressure (on him) because of the success he had. I think there’s a rhythm, there’s a pace to a season. There’s 100 games that you’re playing and it gets ramped up the farther you go. And I don’t think he had enough gas in the tank at the end, in my mind, to play the way he wanted to.”
Kuznetsov’s offensive production began sputtering in mid-April. Including the playoffs, he managed just one goal in his final 32 games. He also went from a team-high plus-27 in the regular season to a team-worst minus-4 in the playoffs.
“My response is that he is a good player,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. “He stepped up last year. I expected him to – and I think he expected to have a little more production. This is not a call on Kuzy or anything like that. He’s a young player that’s growing.
“Probably he’ll learn a lot from that series (against the Penguins) that going forward will make him a really elite player and we won’t ever be talking about him not being productive in the playoffs. There are certain things you have to go through and this series was maybe a learning curve.
“When you think about it, he had a really good season. It was his first time going through it when he was a prime guy. Did he run out of gas? We’re asking all those questions. Mentally, it’s a big change going from part-time player to having good success. Looking back at it, Kuzy was sort of in a third-line role last year in the playoffs and he had good success, similar to maybe (Nick) Bonino and that third line (of the Penguins).”
Kuznetsov was reluctant to analyze his 2015-16 season but acknowledged his play was not at a high enough level in the post-season, saying he had bigger expectations for himself and the Capitals, who finished the regular season with a league-best 120 points.
“I’m not ready to talk about my game right now,” He said. “I know it’s not perfect and not even normal. It’s kind of tough right now to talk about that. … I know I have to play better in this playoff. But right now I don’t want to talk about that.
“If you’re a good player, you never will worry about your points, your goals, you always want to win something. I never win.”
At 24, Kuznetsov should get plenty more chances with the Capitals. He’s entering the final year of his contract with the Caps and if he begins next season on a top line with Alex Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie, he has the potential to put up offensive numbers that warrant a new contract in the $6 million a year range.
To do that, Kuznetsov will need to find the proper offseason training regimen that can allow him to get through a season that will begin with him representing Russia in the World Cup of Hockey and carries the potential of another 100-plus games.
“It’s tough,” Kuznetsov said of this year’s failed expectations. “We finish not where we want to be for second year in a row. We’re a great team. We’ve got to go figure out for sure how we’re gonna play next year.
“I think you just have to go through that. It’s a good teaching point again. We just have to be all together and be stronger next year.”