In Kuznetsov’s preseason debut against the St. Louis Blues in Kansas City, Mo., he centered Ovechkin and Oshie while Backstrom was on a second line with Andre Burakovsky and Justin Williams. That Coach Barry Trotz could start the season with Kuznetsov as the first-line center is an indication of the high expectations Washington has for his third NHL season.
“He’s a dominant player now,” Trotz said. “I think he’s got a high confidence. It gives us great flexibility to do whatever thing we would want. I think on matchups, it’ll free some stuff for us, so we can do a number of different things with our roster.
“Then getting Lars Eller in that third hole and [Jay Beagle] in the four, I think we’re probably as strong as any Caps team in a long, long time.”
After years of searching for a capable second-line center and then having a revolving door at third-line center last season, Washington no longer has any holes up the middle. Instead, Trotz envisions both Backstrom and Kuznetsov playing with Ovechkin throughout the season, able to switch his one-two punch depending on the matchup.
“They both bring a little different type of game,” Trotz said. “Backy is such a cerebral player, makes good plays. Kuzy can carry the mail a little bit more some nights, you know? Not that Backy can’t, but Kuzy does that a little more, so sometimes, you can free up some legs and stuff like that. . . . They got to worry about a number of things when they play us.”
Kuznetsov was the team’s leading scorer last season with 20 goals and 57 assists. He struggled in the playoffs with one power-play goal and one assist in 12 games, and the organization attributed his slump to a possible burnout from playing a first full NHL season in an elevated role. That’s something the Capitals expect to be remedied this season.
It took less than three minutes for him to dazzle in his first preseason game. He danced around St. Louis’s Jay Bouwmeester, taking the puck with him before setting up an Oshie one-timer. Kuznetsov played roughly 178 minutes with Ovechkin and Oshie last season, and the trio had an even-strength Corsi-for percentage of 54.75, the shot attempts on the ice tilted in their favor.
“We all can play with each other,” Kuznetsov said. “Sometimes, Coach will switch us and doesn’t matter, I think. So, for us, all we have to do is what Coach [tells] us and stay with the plan, and it doesn’t matter who we play with.
“Of course, to play with Ovi and Oshie, it’s a little bit different than between Willy and Burkie, but that’s not a big difference.”