Evgeny Kuznetsov had worked 10 days straight this summer with his idol’s trainer before he asked, “When are we going to have days off?” Upon hearing Pavel Datsyuk never needed a day off, Kuznetsov decided he didn’t either.
As the Washington Capitals forward works on his own game to regain the scoring touch he flashed for the majority of last season, he is again reminded to model himself after Datsyuk, the longtime Detroit Red Wings center who retired this year.
“I always use the term, ‘Play a little more like Pavel Datsyuk,’ ” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said. “Pavel Datsyuk has maybe the highest skill level that we’ve seen in this league and up there with anybody in the league, but you wouldn’t know it the way he plays because he plays with sort of that blue-collar mentality. I know there’s a connection between Kuzy and Datsyuk, so I always use that term for visual for him.”
Said Kuznetsov: “Trying to copy Pavel, you will have same chances like walk from here to China without food. For me, it’s like that. So, it’s really tough. But I try to play like he did sometimes on the ice. You know, I’m not alone in the league who’s trying to be like him.”
Kuznetsov was the Capitals’ leading scorer last season with 20 goals and 57 assists, but his production tapered off toward the end of the year. He didn’t score a goal in the last 20 games of the regular season, and he had just one goal and one assist in the playoffs. The slump has seemingly continued into the start of this season; he has just two goals and five assists through 16 games, giving him three goals in his past 36 regular-season games. Through 16 games last season, Kuznetsov had five goals and 12 assists .
Trotz has theorized that once Kuznetsov displayed his impressive scoring touch, opposing teams started to focus on limiting his time and space. In the process, Kuznetsov struggled to adjust and lost his confidence, something he hasn’t gotten back yet. Trotz has encouraged Kuznetsov to occasionally simplify and work harder for opportunities.
“Sometimes, puck’s not going in,” Kuznetsov said. “Sometimes, I’m just worried about my partner, trying to play for my teammate and kind of a little bit unselfish play, you know? Sometimes, I have a good chance for shooting puck, but I try to make another pass. That’s how I make fun.
“That’s how I live, you know? I will change my whole goals for a couple good plays and make all five guys happy on the ice. . . . That’s fun time, when you have a chance to fix your game. I know some guys can play 15 years in a row at a high level, but that’s only like Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Eric Lindros — they all legit, yeah. I’m not like these guys. I have to work hard and raise my game a little bit higher.”
Datsyuk’s work ethic is what Kuznetsov said he admires most, that Datsyuk might exercise twice on what’s supposed to be a day off and then not tell anyone. When Kuznetsov worked with Datsyuk’s trainer in Russia this summer, a “day off” was considered playing soccer on the beach.
“If you hear Pavel,  years old, never gets the day off, you don’t have to take it, too,” Kuznetsov said.
When the Capitals played in Detroit during Kuznetsov’s rookie season, Datsyuk asked Trotz how Kuznetsov was doing. Trotz relayed the ways he thought Kuznetsov could get better, and Datsyuk promised Trotz he would talk to him. In that meeting, Kuznetsov was giddy just to have the opportunity ask Datsyuk questions. In 953 games with the Red Wings, Datsyuk scored 314 goals and 604 assists, displaying the consistency over a 14-season NHL career that Kuznetsov is now trying to emulate.
Trotz later credited that first talk between Kuznetsov and Datsyuk as sparking Kuznetsov’s roaring start to last season. As Kuznetsov’s production has sputtered, Trotz believes the solution may again have to do with Datsyuk, who now plays in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League.
“He’s such a skilled and offensive player, like Kuzy, and they can make those high-end, artistic plays as well as those high-end skilled plays, but he had a good balance of that blue collar,” Trotz said. “When he had to grunt a goal in, where he had to get in hard and grind it out and create something off a cycle or a grind, he would do that. You think of Pavel Datsyuk as one of the most skilled guys who has ever played the game almost, but you also think that he’s a hard worker, a really hard worker, and he gets his nose dirty all of the time. …
“Kuzy, he’s coming. He’s just got to get a little more balance and then I think that production will explode because that’s what happened with him, I think, last year. He got really, really determined and he was getting those seconds from just dogging the puck. He started getting those second opportunities to do something great with the puck.”