With Nicklas Backstrom uncertain over whether he’ll be ready for the Capitals’ Oct. 10 season opener following offseason hip surgery, 23-year-old Russian Evgeny Kuznetsov will be thrust into the spotlight as the Caps’ top-line center.
And while the second-line center is hesitant to talk about his ability to handle the added pressure, his teammates are willing to speak for him – and for the need for Backstrom to take his time with his rehab.
“I know guys that have had (hip surgery) and come back feeling great,” Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “But I’m sure like any injury things can be delayed and it could be stiff and it might take a while. But (Backstrom) is young enough (27) where he should be fine and when he’s ready to play he’ll be good. He’s that kind of player.”
As for Kuznetsov, who finished his first full NHL season with 11 goals, 26 assists and a plus-10 rating, Niskanen said he’s excited to see what he’ll do with the opportunity of playing with top-line talent like Alex Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie.
“He proved it,” Niskanen said. “He got better and better as the year went on and played his best in the last 20 games and in the playoffs. That’s a good sign. I don’t think anyone is questioning who’s going to be in that spot after the last couple months (of last season).
“Now the challenge for him is to still keep getting better. Can he keep going? He may flat line for a month or something, but he looks good. He’s smiling every day and I’m not worried about him at all. He’s going to have a really good year again.”
Taken by the Caps with the 26th overall pick of the 2010 NHL draft, Kuznetsov made Caps fans wait until the final month of the 2013-14 season to get a glimpse of his talent. He finished that season with five goals and two assists in 17 games under Adam Oates.
When Barry Trotz replaced Oates the following season, Kuznetsov won the job of second-line center and grew stronger as the season wore on, finishing tied with Ovechkin with a team-high five playoff goals.
“I think it’s going to be his best year because last year helped him a lot to be more NHL-ready,” said Caps’ right wing prospect Stan Galiev, who played on a line with Kuznetsov on Russian national teams. “He’s a game-changer, for sure.
“He knows the system and he’ll be more ready. He’s going to have more goals, more points. And he’s a leader. He’s something special and we’re lucky to have a guy like him on our team.”
Kuznetsov declined to talk much about the improvements he’d like to make in his game – “We have coaches to talk about that,” he said – but he admits he can be better than he was last season.
“I know my bad side and what I have to do better,” he said. “I want to be better. Every hockey player wants to be better every day. I’m young and I want to win something, right?”
Kuznetsov spent most of last season on a second line with left wing Marcus Johansson and right wing Troy Brouwer. Ideally, the Caps would like to see him centering a second line with Marcus Johansson or Andre Burakovsky on his left and Justin Williams on his right. But Kuznetsov says he’s willing to play with anyone the coaching staff deems compatible.
“It’s hard to say right now but my mentality is I’m ready to play any position,” he said. “Every guy is important to our team.”
And that includes, Backstrom, Kuznetsov said.
“I hope Nicky gets ready for the first game,” he said. “You always want to see your best center to play first game because if you see the last five games, (teams) battle for wild card, one point. You don’t want to lose those points in the first few games. You need those points. Sometime one point and you’re out.”
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