Even after Kuznetsov faced questions from the media and spoke for the first time since he tested positive for cocaine during the world championships in May, there’s only so much we can know. Is he someone who used the drug once, regretted it and moved on? Or does he have a problem for which he needs help?
“I said everything in the statement already,” Kuznetsov said Saturday, referring to a release issued by the Capitals.
Forget that he didn’t address that issue in his statement. This isn’t a time for condemnation, because whether he dabbled and put it down or was a regular user, he has been outed. That has the benefit of being good for Kuznetsov personally and professionally because he can get himself right. It also, in a roundabout way, can be good for the Capitals. Regardless of the magnitude of the problem — minuscule or major — exposure was the best route to making sure Kuznetsov acts, each and every day, not only like one of the centerpieces of an organization that has entrusted him with much money and responsibility but also like a 27-year-old father of two, a more important role.
On Saturday at the Capitals’ Arlington training facility, Kuznetsov said a lot of the right things.
“There’s a lot of people who are supporting me, and I’m going to appreciate it,” Kuznetsov said. “And as a hockey player, the only chance to say thanks to them is to prove on the ice. Growing as a person, I want to get better, and I’m going to learn from this, for sure.”
But he also said a few things that seemed misplaced, incongruous with what he was facing, which were serious questions about his state of mind, his maturity, his professionalism, his reliability, his health. Keep in mind: Kuznetsov is inherently loopy, a goofball who wants to lighten the mood in any room with a joke. So often over the monotony of an 82-game season, that works. Faced with serious questions about his own accountability, that might not be the best approach.
Either way, the core question for a Capitals fan — shoot, for a Capitals coach or a Capitals executive or a Capitals teammate — would be: Evgeny, did you have off-ice issues that affected your performance in 2018-19, which was, shall we say, uneven?
“Probably no,” Kuznetsov said. “Of course, after 70 points, a bad year, you look for the bounce back, right?”
Without question, he said it flippantly. Seventy points is a lousy year, and you have to look for off-ice reasons that caused it? Please.
Here’s where Kuznetsov needs to be careful, even as so much of what he says is contrite, even as teammates have publicly and privately shown support. The Capitals believe he is an elite talent. Yes, the 72 points Kuznetsov produced in 76 games last year could be considered a career achievement for players of a certain ability. List any of those players, and the Capitals believe Kuznetsov is more talented. What Kuznetsov didn’t say: that 72-point season featured one 25-game stretch in which he scored just one goal. Too many nights, you didn’t notice he was on the ice, and he’s way too good for that.
So had a video of Kuznetsov with a substance that appeared to be cocaine never surfaced, had he not tested positive, this training camp would have opened with questions about who Kuznetsov will be: the best-guy-on-the-ice-every-night character who appeared during the Caps’ run to the 2018 Stanley Cup or the will-he-show-up-or-not enigma who disappeared in last spring’s first-round exit? It’s an important issue for the future of the organization given that after cornerstones Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom have moved on — it’s coming, people — Kuznetsov will remain. He has six years remaining on his eight-year, $62.4 million deal.
“There’s more there,” Coach Todd Reirden said Saturday.
Everyone on the Capitals realizes that. Forty-five players registered more points than Kuznetsov last year. You think Kuznetsov thinks there are 45 better offensive players in the league? He shouldn’t, because there aren’t.
Still, drawing a direct line between Kuznetsov’s positive test and his inconsistent performance is risky. The Capitals themselves aren’t doing that, not in the front office, not in the dressing room. I asked Ovechkin the other day whether, as the team’s captain, he had reached out to Kuznetsov in the wake of the news.
“Not as captain,” Ovechkin said. “As a friend.”
That’s the right approach. Put aside the hockey. If you need help, we’re here, in the room or in the stands. Should you choose to cheer Kuznetsov when he first appears in the regular season at Capital One Arena, which would be Oct. 8 against Dallas, those cheers shouldn’t be seen as an endorsement of his previous choices but as support for the pledges he has made to be better because of it.
“I’m not a bad person,” Kuznetsov said Saturday.
You so want to take his word for it, and yet trust must be rebuilt. When the video first appeared, Kuznetsov issued a statement that he had “never” done drugs. He initially said that to both the Capitals and the NHL, too, and while the league said his suspension was for “inappropriate conduct” that we would assume related to the subsequent positive test, it could have related to misleading the team and the league when the issue first came up.
Either way, the time for judging is tomorrow and the next day and the next and into January and through June because that’s when Evgeny Kuznetsov will show us what path he has chosen.
“I feel bad for my friends, for my teammates, for the organization, for the fans that they have to deal with this news,” he said. “But I will pay back more than people give me right now.”
Support that idea, and help him follow through. Maybe Evgeny Kuznetsov slipped up once. Maybe he had a full-blown problem. What matters is the path ahead. It is his to choose.
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