Three weeks ago, when Evgeny Kuznetsov arrived at long last in Washington and then joined the Capitals’ lineup two days later, Coach Adam Oates would go out of his way to downplay expectations for the 21-year-old forward.
No amount of raw skill could prepare him to jump into the NHL where physicality and grit takes on a larger role than Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League. But through his first eight NHL games, Kuznetsov has shown an accelerated learning curve.
“He’s maybe a little ahead of what I expected because I didn’t expect much,” Oates said. “The NHL is so different and I thought it would be a little overwhelming and it hasn’t been so far, which I’m very happy about for him and for us. He’s playing very solid.”
There was never much question that Kuznetsov would provide an offensive spark: His talent as a puck-carrier, offensive vision and ability to set up a teammate were all visible back when the Capitals made him a first-round pick in 2010. The results have come quicker than many anticipated, though, as Kuznetsov has recorded one goal and five assists and is 2-for-3 in shootouts.
It is a small sample size, even if six of the eight contests came against playoff-bound teams, but between the points he’s accumulated and nifty passes he’s made, Kuznetsov is adapting.
“He’s a very skilled player; he’s able to hold on to the puck and try to make plays,” said Troy Brouwer, who has played on the second line with Kuznetsov the last five games and sees his new teammate learning how the North American ice size speeds up play. “On smaller ice, time closes in on you a little bit quicker but I think he’s figuring it out. He’s realizing that he’s got to make a play, a decision a little bit quicker, but he’s got that skill set to be able to do that.”
Kuznetsov started on the fourth line because Oates wanted to ease him into the NHL, but that lasted only three games. After a three-assist performance against Vancouver on March 14, he was moved up to the second line where he’s played since and seen his ice time increase to more than 17 minutes per night.
The additional ice time, combined with steady shifts on the power play, have helped Kuznetsov feel more comfortable after each game. While he may be new to the NHL and to the Capitals, he has a complete appreciation for the situation he landed in with the team in desperate search of wins to reach the playoffs.
At “this time we need to score on power play, whose goal it [is] doesn’t matter. We have to score goal,” Kuznetsov said, adding that the Capitals’ power play system is similar to the one he played with the KHL’s Traktor Chelyabinsk. “We have nine games [left] right? We need to win straight nine games. We need goals.”
What’s stood out to Oates the most isn’t necessarily what Kuznetsov can do, but how he’s been able to reel in his skill and protect the puck by making smart decisions to maintain possession.
There were times in his first few games when Kuznetsov tried to weave through three opposing skaters or make an over-the-top pass to create an offensive opportunity, but he would lose the puck and the Capitals would have to switch their focus to damage control. Oates has seen Kuznetsov recognize and eliminate much of that risk.
“He’s playing pretty much East Coast hockey, NHL hockey. He realizes there are times you’ve got to grind and I’ve been very impressed with that,” Oates said. “There was one game really early, I think maybe it was his second game, where he tried this miracle pass in the second period where it got picked off and it went the other way. I haven’t really seen that since. When you’re touted and you’re supposed to be this great stick-handler, puck possession guy — it’s still our league, there’s no room for that — it’s like he’s recognized that.”
Oates drew the comparison with Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk, an extremely talented Russian playmaker who has found the balance of using that elite skill without making himself or his team vulnerable.
Datsyuk is “a very skilled guy but he’s under control all the time so it’s not wasted skill, its not perimeter skill,” Oates said. “That’s what you want. You don’t want this try and deke three guys and throw some miracle pass. That’s not a good formula.”