The dog days of summer are officially here, but it's never too hot to talk some hockey.
Capitals Insider Tarik El-Bashir and Capitals correspondent JJ Regan are here to help you through the offseason doldrums. They will discuss key questions facing the Caps for the upcoming season as Washington prepares to defend its title for the first time in franchise history.
Today's question: Has Evgeny Kuznetsov made the jump from really good player to superstar?
Tarik: Yes, without a doubt, Evgeny Kuznetsov has made the leap from a very good player to a superstar.
And you know when it happened?
It happened over the course of 56 unforgettable days this past spring.
Kuzy has always possessed the talent to be one of the game’s most impactful players. His 83 regular season points, in fact, marked a career high and put him just inside the NHL’s top-20 in production.
He indeed had a very good regular season. But to me, superstars are the players who are in the national sports conversation. The guys who come to mind immediately when you think about a particular team. Guys who can single-handedly break open a game or a playoffs series. Guys who’ve received a major NHL award or have been recognized with a trip to the All-Star Game. For the Caps, those guys have been Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby for the last several years.
Kuznetsov, 26, became a member of that group in the playoffs.
Ovechkin took home the Conn Smythe Trophy, but it easily could have gone to Kuznetsov. I know because I wrestled with the decision to put Ovi over Kuzy for days prior to casting my vote.
Here’s why I had such a tough time:
- Kuznetsov led the Stanley Cup-winning team (and the entire postseason) with 32 points…five more than Ovechkin.
- Kuznetsov scored arguably the most important goal of the run…Game 6…in OT…vs. the archrival and two-time defending champion Penguins. Without that clutch tally, we’re having a different discussion today.
- In addition to being the most productive Capital during the playoffs, I also felt he was the most consistent from game to game. In fact, Kuznetsov recorded at least a point in all but one of the Caps’ final 13 postseason contests. And that one game? Game 2 vs. Las Vegas, and he left after just a few shifts due to a shoulder injury.
Kuznetsov is no longer the dude who centers Ovi’s line. Kuznetsov is now his own dude. He’s progressed from a star-in-the-making to just a star.
And here’s the best part: when fans outside of Washington get a load of his, um, weirdly unique and outrageously funny personality, his popularity is going to explode.
JJ: Sorry Tarik, but you are wrong. Dead wrong.
Oops, I should clarify. You're not wrong about Kuznetsov being a superstar, you're wrong because it didn't happen last spring. He already was one.
I don't know what people have been watching over the past few years, but in my book, Kuznetsov graduated from very good to superstar a long time ago, it just took the 2018 playoff run for most people to notice.
Perhaps we have a different definition of "superstar." To me, national recognition has no bearing on whether a player is a superstar talent. Heck, Backstrom has been a superstar for years with hardly any recognition at all. Maybe expectations were high for Kuznetsov given how long Washington had to wait to get him out of Russia and how good he was in the KHL and because of that, people withheld praise. But the fact is he has shown throughout his career, and not just last spring, that he is a superstar.
At the age of 22, Kuznetsov had a breakout performance in the 2015 playoffs with five goals and seven points in 14 games. We all remember his series-clinching goal against the Penguins, but that was not his first. He also scored another clutch, series-clinching goal in Game 7 against the New York Islanders in 2015. During this year's playoff run, I asked him a question about the Pittsburgh overtime goal and I called it the biggest of his career. He corrected me and told me he still considered the game-winner against Jaroslav Halak and the Islanders to be his biggest.
In only his second full season in the league, Kuznetsov rattled off 77 points to lead the Caps. He finished tied for ninth in the entire NHL that year ahead of other superstars like Vladimir Tarasenko, Anze Kopitar, Tyler Seguin and two guys named Ovechkin and Backstrom.
Yes, there was the year in which he managed only two points in 12 playoff games, but his repeated success to this point in his career shows that postseason was very much the exception and not the norm.
So to answer the question, yes, Kuznetsov is absolutely a superstar. It just took awhile for people to notice.
Other key questions
How will the Caps look different under Todd Reirden?
Will the Caps suffer a Stanley Cup hangover?
Can Alex Ovechkin still challenge for another Rocket Richard Trophy?