“Yeah I’m excited for sure," Kuznetsov said. “It’s been quite a hard summer for me, and it is not easy to watch the games from upstairs or on the TV. You know, as a hockey player when you play a lot of games, you probably don’t realize how cool it is to actually go through warm-up, go through all the process, play the hockey game. When you miss a couple games, you start to realize how much easier, cooler to play the hockey than be in the workout area.”
Kuznetsov, who typically would slot in on the second pairing centering Jakub Vrana and T.J Oshie, instead will start as the third-line center, according to Capitals Coach Todd Reirden. Kuznetsov will skate alongside Carl Hagelin and Richard Panik, leaving center Lars Eller on the second line, where the Capitals have liked his chemistry with Vrana and Oshie. Through the first three games, the Eller line has combined for four goals and five assists, with Vrana and Oshie tallying two goals each.
Besides a change in centers, the fourth line will also get a shake-up. Chandler Stephenson will be the fourth-line center against Dallas, over Nic Dowd. Stephenson, who looked to be the odd man out with Kuznetsov’s return, will get his shot once again Tuesday night. Reirden pointed to Stephenson’s ability to create more offense and his faceoff numbers as why Stephenson got the nod over Dowd. Stephenson has taken 43 faceoffs through three games, winning 55.8 percent of them (24 of 43). Dowd has won 43.5 percent of his faceoffs (10 of 23).
“His body of work from training camp up through the first few games has earned him that position for tonight’s game," Reirden said.
On the blue line, defenseman Michal Kempny (hamstring) remains unavailable. Defenseman Jonas Siegenthaler will remain on the top pairing with John Carlson. With Dmitry Orlov and Nick Jensen as the second pairing, Tyler Lewington will slot into the third pairing, with Radko Gudas shifting over to play on the left side.
Sunday, the team sent down defenseman Martin Fehervary to the team’s American Hockey League affiliate in Hershey, Pa. as one of three cap-related moves to create room for Kuznetsov. Reirden said the team was happy with Fehervary’s three games, but Fehervary has a $805,833 cap hit, more than either Siegenthaler ($714,166) or Lewington ($675,000).
Reirden did not have any further updates to Kempny’s status, though the defenseman did participate in his most intense practice thus far Monday. While Kempny’s availability is still up in the air, the return of Kuznetsov only will bolster a group that earned five out of six points through three games.
“I think they can play without me, and they know my job is to not make worse you know?" Kuznetsov said. “Just whatever the coach tell me to do I just have to execute and have to play the game and whatever his plan is for me I just have to do it.”
The Capitals were disappointed with Kuznetsov’s 72 points in 76 games last season, a sentiment he echoed himself Monday, calling it a “terrible year" for him. Reirden said he hopes to see Kuznetsov back at the “Stanley Cup level” he played at two seasons ago.
“Obviously it’s not going to be perfect here coming off a layoff, but with how he plays, the role model that he is, his best response is how he plays on the ice,” Reirden said.
“Obviously he is an elite player and he’s been through some difficult times and it will be exciting for him to get back out there," Reirden said. “I’m happy for him to get back to the life that he knows and loves and take advantage of this opportunity to get back to the things he does best, which is hockey.”