He’s often one of the first players on the ice for a Capitals practice, dragging pucks with him as he attempts odd-angle shots from the goal line. Because how cool would it be if he actually scored with one in a game? And what if he did it with his backhand?
“I just love to try some new stuff, and I feel like the more crazy stuff you do on the ice, it actually builds the momentum for your team,” Kuznetsov said.
Kuznetsov has a flair for the dramatic, and he is not just concerned with scoring but also how he does it. The rink is his canvas. Search “Evgeny Kuznetsov highlights” on YouTube to see some of his art, a collection that includes Kuznetsov batting in a rebound out of the air as if it were a baseball and no-look backhand passes as he’s skating around the net. He’s bold with what he attempts on the ice, and he’s talented enough that the Capitals don’t want to quash his creativity. After he scored a career-high 27 goals and 83 points this season, his unique vision and imagination is what will propel him into a higher echelon of players.
“I feel like I need that, when people give me pressure and they always want more from me,” Kuznetsov said. “I feel like when I get 77 points two years ago, I am like Jesus. Now it’s more than 80 points, and I still feel like, c’mon man, you can be better.”
His technique can take some of the most ordinary moments in games and make them special. Washington was in Tampa Bay for the third game of the season when Kuznetsov carried the puck into the offensive zone, gliding in a way that deceived opposing players with his speed because his skates didn’t appear to be moving. In the press box, one of that night’s healthy scratches turned to his Capitals teammate: “Kuzy might be the best player I’ve ever been on the same team with,” he said.
“He’s an elite player in my mind,” General Manager Brian MacLellan said. “Him carrying the puck through the middle of the ice is as high-end as it gets. There’s him and [Edmonton Oilers center Connor] McDavid. It’s dynamic to watch them go through the middle of the ice.”
For a second year in a row, McDavid finished with the most points in the NHL (108), and in McDavid’s games against the Capitals, Coach Barry Trotz has typically tasked Kuznetsov with defending him, even though Nicklas Backstrom is considered the more defensively responsible center. But as MacLellan put it, it’s against that level of competition that Kuznetsov is “trying to make a statement.” With the playoffs beginning this week, the competition the Capitals will face will only improve, starting with their first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets. And Washington will continue to rely on Kuznetsov to rise to the challenge.
“A couple of years ago, he was a good player and he didn’t know how good he was,” Trotz said, “or maybe he did know and he wasn’t having quite the success and understanding he could. As he’s grown, I think Kuzy knows he’s one of the top players in the league. When you give him a challenge or a matchup that you say, ‘Try to stop this guy,’ he usually has that little smirk and goes, ‘No, he’s going to be trying to stop me tonight.’”
As the Capitals prepared to play in the Stadium Series outdoor game at the Naval Academy last month, Trotz emphasized that his team would have to simplify its game with the expected wind gusts and questionable ice conditions. When a reporter asked Kuznetsov about that approach, he shrugged and opted for honesty. “I never keep it simple,” he said.
A few weeks later, Trotz chuckled at the exchange.
“But he can do a lot of things that, as a coach, there’s that 1 percent or 2 percent in the league that you just have to trust that they’re going to get it done because they’re that good,” Trotz said.
Kuznetsov’s movements and style are a signature. He and Backstrom are interchangeable as Washington’s top two centers, a “two-headed monster,” as Trotz has called them, because opposing teams have to pick one against which to deploy their top defensive pairing, giving the other an easier time. But the way they approach their job is rather different, with Backstrom preferring subtlety, Kuznetsov favoring flamboyance.
Kuznetsov attempted a lacrosse-style shot in a game against the New York Rangers two weeks ago, pressing the blade of his stick into the puck to scoop it as he came around the back of the net. The attempt failed, but had he managed to float it into the top corner of the cage as intended, he would’ve been the first NHL player to score in that fashion, something of which Kuznetsov was well aware. He’d come across the move during one of his YouTube binges, and just a few days after Kuznetsov’s try, Nashville winger Filip Forsberg attempted it, also unsuccessfully.
“But it doesn’t count,” Kuznetsov said of Forsberg’s try. “The puck was rolling, so it’s not a true one.”
Before he had a laptop, Kuznetsov spent roughly 12 hours a day at his hometown hockey rink in Chelyabinsk. Kuznetsov and his family moved to Omsk when he was 14, right when the NHL was in the 2004-05 lockout. Jaromir Jagr, the second-highest point scorer in NHL history, was playing for the Omsk Avangard team that season, and a giddy Kuznetsov would sit in the stands and watch his every move in practice.
“When they signed Jagr, we think, ‘Holy [expletive], it’s actually Jagr, he’s legit,'” Kuznetsov said. “Then when we saw him on the ice, and it’s like, ‘Holy [expletive], is it seriously Jagr?’ Because the way he skates, the way he plays, it looks like he can’t even do anything. But then when we actually saw his first game and things he can do on the ice, it’s unbelievable.”
Some of the Omsk team trainers told Kuznetsov that Jagr would get extra practice time in at 2 a.m., so Kuznetsov started sneaking into the rink late at night, watching from an upstairs window so Jagr wouldn’t see him. Then he’d sleep in the locker room afterward. The drills and shots Jagr would run through in those late-night hours, Kuznetsov would then attempt the next day.
Kuznetsov also played in a local beer league, a teenager stickhandling around 40-somethings. “Sometimes it gets scary because if you dangle those people, they get pretty angry because that’s their hockey life, too, you know? They can’t handle those mistakes and they really want to hurt you,” Kuznetsov said. When he first arrived in Washington four years ago, he occasionally joined pickup hockey games at the Capitals’ practice facility, hiding behind a helmet with full cage over his face.
“They not even know who I am right away,” Kuznetsov said. “But then on the ice, they’re like, ‘Holy [expletive], are you a professional player?’ I’m like, ‘No, no.’ ‘Oh, you look familiar. You look [like] that guy.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, it’s not my first time here.’
“Then they say, ‘Oh, even the way you play, it looks like that guy from the Capitals.'”
Kuznetsov was a restricted free agent this summer, eventually signing a massive eight-year, $62 million contract, but he considered returning to Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League. He would have easily been a superstar there, and he would have played in the Olympics. It would have been a simple and justifiable decision.
But Kuznetsov never keeps it simple, and he still had moves he wanted to try with the Capitals.
“This summer, when [contract negotiations were] going back and forth, I would sit home and think, is it time to finish my NHL career?” Kuznetsov said. “Because I knew if I’m going to stay home this summer, I would never come back, for sure. But the number one thing in my head, when you play here, if you want to be one of the better players in the league, it’s a huge challenge in this league.”
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