When the puck is on Evgeny Kuznetsov’s stick, the way the two move in concert elicits a certain awe from those who watch him most. On a Washington Capitals team that has Alex Ovechkin’s shot, Nicklas Backstrom’s passing and Braden Holtby’s saves, Kuznetsov’s stickhandling still manages to be the most eye-catching.
“It looks like he’s dancing out there,” Backstrom said.
“[When] you come watch a game, there are certain players that get people out of their seats and it’s a joy to watch,” forward T.J. Oshie said. “I don’t even like watching hockey, so when I see Kuzy going, it’s one of the only times I enjoy.”
“It’s effortless. It’s smooth. It looks like he’s not even trying,” General Manager Brian MacLellan said. “He’ll come to a complete stop and reverse out of it. It’s fun to watch somebody do that stuff. It’s got to be unbelievable to be able to play that way, you know? That’s what I always think about: ‘How fun would that be if I could do that?’ ”
Kuznetsov is certainly enjoying himself, and he’s not interested in much else. His four-point clinic in the Capitals’ 5-2 win over the visiting Vegas Golden Knights on Wednesday has him at seven points through the season’s first four games. Apparently he’s picking up where he left off in the playoffs last season, when he was the NHL’s leading scorer with 12 goals and 20 assists en route to Washington’s first Stanley Cup.
The grand stage and Kuznetsov’s dazzling play on it elevated his reputation in the league, but his teammates still don’t think many have grasped exactly how good he is. Saturday night’s game against visiting Toronto, when Kuznetsov will share the ice with two of the league’s best centers, Auston Matthews and John Tavares of the Maple Leafs, is another opportunity for the gregarious 26-year-old Russian to show he belongs in that elite echelon.
“I think he’s up there with the top five players in the league, and I don’t know, he just doesn’t get the recognition for some reason,” Oshie said.
Kuznetsov smiled as that comment was relayed to him, then was asked whether winning the Hart Trophy, the NHL’s MVP award, is a goal.
“I don’t give [an expletive] about that,” he said. “To be MVP, you have to work hard 365 [days] in a year, but I’m not ready for that. I want to have fun, and I want to make those risky plays when sometimes you don’t have a play and you guys don’t understand every time those plays. It’s not easy to make. But to be MVP in this league, you have to play even better. You have to go next level. It’s not easy. More important, you have to stay focused 365 [days], but that’s not my style.”
That’s the sort of contrarian statement that teammates have come to expect from Kuznetsov. After the Capitals lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round of the playoffs in 2017, the players had sullen expressions as they conducted exit interviews with reporters two days later. When it was Kuznetsov’s turn, he asked the assembled media, “Why all of you act like someone died?” He kicks up a leg and flaps his arms like a bird after some goals, a celebration that ruffles opponents’ feathers but is a favorite of his young daughter.
“I was watching the movie a few days ago about the Brazilian soccer players,” Kuznetsov said. “For them, futbol, the soccer game, that’s the biggest day in their year. They have fun, they enjoy, they dance, and they’re smiling every time. That’s what I’m trying to do, too. I try to have fun, and I try to enjoy every second on the ice. You never know when you’re going to be retired, right?”
But along with that, despite Kuznetsov’s protestations, teammates have seen his competitive side. “There are some people who are talented and just want to get by, but Kuzy is talented and he wants to be the best,” said Carolina Hurricanes captain Justin Williams, who was Kuznetsov’s linemate for two years in Washington. Fittingly, head-to-head matchups against other top centers bring out the best in him, perhaps because he feels he has something to prove.
“He wants that responsibility, and he’s always challenging himself to try something new,” Williams said. “That’s the brain that he has — ‘I want to be the best player; I don’t want to just be good.’ And that bodes well for Washington because he’s a once-in-a-while talent.”
TSN analyst Ray Ferraro, who played 18 seasons in the NHL, said Kuznetsov is as underappreciated of an offensive player as there is in the league. Washington coaches and management think the next step for him is to be more consistently dominant, as he was against Vegas on Wednesday. They’ve given him penalty-killing duties this season as a way to force him to raise his two-way play and improve on faceoffs. The Capitals prefer pushing him through the situations they put him in, rather than have a conversation about what they expect.
“I think he’s going to rise to the occasion every time,” MacLellan said. “I don’t think you come out and say, ‘We want you to be the best in the league.’ I don’t think that would work with him. I don’t think it would make much sense to him. He plays the game to be creative, to have fun, to make plays. I think he gets a lot of satisfaction out of that.”
For the Capitals, Kuznetsov’s pursuit of the glorious, highlight-reel play took some getting used to, especially as he occasionally passed up an open look in favor of a more intricate play, which didn’t always work out. But his decision-making in that area has improved, too. He has started to shoot more, and because opposing players have to respect that option now, he’s getting more room to dish the puck to someone else.
“I’m probably a little biased because I play with him, but when you get to see what he’s able to do night in and night out, I haven’t seen a guy who can play with the puck like he can,” Oshie said. “[Edmonton center Connor] McDavid’s got the speed, and he breaks you down with speed. You’ve got some of the other good players with great shots or good passers or great captains, but no one can carry the puck like Kuzy, I don’t think.”
There’s one player in the Capitals’ dressing room who knows what it takes to be the MVP. Ovechkin has won the Hart Trophy three times. Does he think Kuznetsov is capable of that?
“Of course. He’s still young; he still can be better,” Ovechkin said. “But it’s going to be dangerous if he’s going to be better. He’s dangerous right now. But if he’s going to take one more step or half a step, it’s going to be dangerous.”
More on the Capitals and the NHL: