“Everyone wants to talk to me now,” he said. “First question is, ‘How is America?’”
Everything was perfect, Kuznetsov would respond, because with a newborn, new contract and the full backing from the Capitals in him as their second-line center, what more could he say? Not long after Ecenia was born, the Capitals bridged him for two more years, at $3 million in average annual value, with the door jarred wide for a long-term deal in the future. At the conclusion of the playoffs, General Manager Brian MacLellan dubbed the oft-rotated position below Nicklas Backstrom on the depth chart filled thanks to Kuznetsov’s growth, then handed each a new right winger by signing Justin Williams and trading for T.J. Oshie.
But with those factors — at least, the hockey-related ones — came greater on-ice expectations. When Kuznetsov starred during the Capitals’ run into the Eastern Conference semifinals, scoring five goals in 14 games, he set a new baseline. Gone were the growing pains of last fall, as he transitioned into a permanent center role, bounced around the lineup and even spent a stint on the fourth line. His faceoffs improved, as did his defensive zone coverage, to the point that Coach Barry Trotz lost all concerns about tough matchups when the Capitals had first change.
“He got better and better as the year went on, played his best in probably the last 20 games and the playoffs,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “That’s a good sign. I don’t think anyone’s questioning who’s going to be in that [second-line center] spot after the last couple months. Now the challenge for him is getting a little better still…He looks good. He’s still smiling every day. He’s a great kid, he’s got a great attitude and he works hard. I’m not worried about him at all. I think he’s going to have a great year again.”
Depending on Backstrom’s health after undergoing offseason hip surgery — when asked if he would be ready for the regular season, the Swede recently told his hometown newspaper that “I really don’t know,” as translated by HockeyRamblings — Kuznetsov might open 2015-16 on the top line, and will certainly help anchor the top six. He should also reprise his role on the second power play unit, with the aim of turning his 37-point, 80-game rookie season into a more productive sophomore campaign.
“You know I never talk about my own game,” Kuznetsov said Monday afternoon at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, smiling following a workout with eight other skaters and two goalies. “You know that. We have our coaches you talk about that, and I talk with my family a little bit. I know my bad side, what I have to do better, and I try to work. Every hockey player want to be better every day. I’m young and I want to win something, right? It’s cool when you step up to second round and you feel…it’s cool emotion.”
A comparable feeling, perhaps, to re-upping with the Capitals as a restricted free agent, more than tripling his entry-level deal that brought him to the NHL in spring 2014. Aside from some early discussions, both camps quickly settled on a short-term contract and finally agreed on the final value — $2.6 million next season including a $400,000 signing bonus, $3.4 million in 2016-17 — by July 6, well before arbitration became a real threat.
When this new contract expires, Kuznetsov will return to restricted free agency, where talks over a long-term deal likely beckon. With the future in mind, he said, taking two years now was easy to reconcile.
“Every hockey player wants long term, right?” he said. “But I think my deal is perfect for both sides right now. If I play good, we sign a long deal, it’s not a big deal, but it’s all about time, you know? I have to show not only one season how I play, like half season, I have to play two more years like that. I want to stay here probably my whole career. Why not? My wife like it here, my parents like it, I like it. Good city. Good hockey team, all-around hockey.”
NOTE: Joining Kuznetsov on Monday morning were defensemen Niskanen, John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov and Connor Carrick, forwards Nathan Walker, Liam O’Brien, Jakub Vrana and Stanislav Galiev, and goaltender Vitek Vanecek. Other players, like goalies Philipp Grubauer and Braden Holtby, are expected back later this week. Off-ice testing for training camp is scheduled for Sept. 17, with on-ice practices beginning the next day.
Check back later this week for more updates from the optional workouts.