Evgeny Kuznetsov appreciates the relative anonymity he still enjoys in Washington, though he has noticed people back home in Russia regard him differently after his springtime exploits. The Russian outlet Sport-Express compiled a list of the top 50 Russian hockey players and Kuznetsov came in first, just above Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin and Pittsburgh center Evgeni Malkin. His postseason-best 32 points in 24 games during Washington’s Stanley Cup run elevated him into the NHL’s elite, but General Manager Brian MacLellan still has one suggestion for this year.
“I think he can penalty kill,” MacLellan said.
Although Kuznetsov’s first NHL goal came when the Capitals were killing a penalty, he has played a grand total of 11 minutes shorthanded in the past four seasons, or an average of two seconds per game. But as Washington plans to make changes to its penalty kill, Kuznetsov’s speed could be an asset to the unit — and, in turn, could force him to improve his defensive play.
“I think he can get better on faceoffs, defending in his own end, playing against top players,” MacLellan said. “I think there’s all kinds of areas he has potential to be an elite two-way guy in the league. For him, playing in his own end, playing against top players, dominating head-to-head with top guys — that’s the next challenge for him.”
Said Kuznetsov of MacLellan’s assessment: “If he says it, yes. He understands hockey a little bit.”
It’s not unusual for top-line centers to also play shorthanded minutes. Los Angeles Kings star Anze Kopitar averaged more than two minutes per game on the penalty kill last season. Boston’s Patrice Bergeron, a perennial contender for the Selke Trophy, which honors the NHL’s best defensive forward, played 1:49 shorthanded per game last year. Washington’s Nicklas Backstrom often plays late on a penalty kill, but it was in that situation during the playoffs last season that Backstrom suffered two fractures in his finger when he blocked a shot.
And that is the reason so many stars aren’t on the penalty kill: The risk of injury is greater.
“Backy, the way he picks pucks off and the way he gets his stick in the right places, he deters by not allowing that great shot, that one-timer, because he’s already read that next play,” new assistant coach Scott Arniel said. “That’s what everybody’s seen that Kuzy has, too.”
Although there probably won’t be much different about how the Capitals play in Coach Todd Reirden’s first season, the penalty kill will be the most noticeable change at the start. Washington has injected speed throughout its even-strength lineup, and it wants to do the same when shorthanded.
“We want to be more aggressive,” Arniel said. “We don’t want to sit back. If it starts on a lost faceoff, we don’t just go to our setup; we want to pressure. We want to put people in situations where, if they have to make two great passes, three great passes, to beat us, so be it. There’s good talent in this league, but we want to be a pressure group whether that’s down ice, off the draws, off the — we call them trigger points — the pucks that are bobbled, off the walls. That’s where the biggest change is going to come.”
Early-season games tend to be especially penalty-heavy, and skill players can fall out of rhythm if they’re stapled to the bench for long stretches while their team is shorthanded. Penalty killing could keep Kuznetsov more involved in the game, and it would also place a greater emphasis on his faceoffs, traditionally a weakness. He won just 44.2 percent of his draws last season, and of the 1,018 faceoffs he took, just 233 were in the defensive zone, according to the website Puckbase.
“Of course, I want to play better in the faceoff,” Kuznetsov said. “I want to play better in some key situations at the end of the game.”
He’ll get his chance this preseason. Reirden wants to improve on the Capitals’ 80.3 penalty kill percentage from last season — good for 15th in the league — and he believes Kuznetsov can be part of the solution.
“It’s a situation where we’re going to try any option we can,” Reirden said. “We want to get better in that area, we need to get better in that area, and we’re going to be more aggressive. And if we’re going to be more aggressive, then we have to have guys that can skate and think the game at a high level. He’s certainly one of many options we’re considering right now, and he certainly seems to be up to the challenge.”
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