After scoring a goal during the World Cup of Hockey last month, Evgeny Kuznetsov kicked a leg up, flapped his arms and hooted, looking so unburdened that he might actually take flight like the bird he was mimicking. He then proceeded to — ahem — chirp at the opposing team’s bench, and after he took a seat, a Team Russia teammate suggested he settle down. But Kuznetsov knew better, insisting on a little bit of fun.
Last season, Kuznetsov became a metaphor for the Washington Capitals, a dazzling regular season performer who fell flat in the Stanley Cup playoffs. He went from the team’s leading scorer to managing just two points in the postseason, his slump partly to blame for Washington again being ousted in the second round.
While others struggled to understand what had caused Kuznetsov’s sudden scoring drought, a summer of soul-searching led him to believe it was because he had stopped having fun, too worried about a string of poor performances to flap his wings and imitate a strutting chicken.
Expected to spend more time on the top line this season, Kuznetsov is at the center of a Washington team that is again expected to contend for the Stanley Cup, with the most depth up the middle “in the history of the team,” Coach Barry Trotz said. After Kuznetsov’s breakout season of 20 goals and 57 assists, his mental game will be crucial to him growing his on-ice one.
“One thing about Kuzy is that he does have a lot of joy in his game,” Trotz said. “When joy goes out of his game, you can tell he’s fighting it a little bit and it becomes hard and the workload gets real heavy. After a first time through, I think he’s going to be much more prepared for it.”
Kuznetsov said the trouble started in early March, precisely when a player doesn’t want production to take a turn for the worse. He finished the regular season on a 20-game goal-less run, and that carried into the playoffs, when he managed just one even-strength point. Kuznetsov even kept track of exactly how many shots on net he had taken without scoring.
It’s not unusual for players to be their own worst critics, but Kuznetsov’s disappointment in himself spiraled. He felt as if he had let his teammates down, occasionally too ashamed to face them and emotionally retreating.
“I tried to think too much about the game and why it’s not going well and tried to do some different things, but all I have to do is already forget and just play the next game,” Kuznetsov said. “Other guys are pretty, pretty good with that. They always forget the game right away. The next morning, they’re smiling and they show you they’re okay. We lost, and maybe he did some couple mistakes, maybe key mistakes, maybe the team lost the game and he get a bad penalty, but he come back next morning and show the team, show the trainers, show the coaches that he already forget and he smiling.
“But I’m not this guy. I’m always worried about that and why my line doesn’t play well, why I played bad. Even if you guys think I play well, I have the different thinking. I always have to do something different, and if I not enjoy the hockey, if I don’t have fun, it’s always bad for me.”
But a Kuznetsov who is not enjoying himself is hard to reconcile with the player known for being one of the most lighthearted members of the locker room. His pregame routine includes watching “Family Feud” and “Deal Or No Deal” in the locker room after morning skates. When he gets home after games, his wife and daughter are typically sleeping, so he plays video games to relax.
Even his style of play is fun, slick skating coupled with dekes and mesmerizing passes, such as his signature backhand from halfway around the net. His wacky goal celebrations have included gleefully sliding down the ice on his back while mirroring a paddling motion with his stick, doing push-ups, shooting a bow and arrow and a lassoing motion that was inspired by a team meal at a “cowboy restaurant” in Calgary and Kuznetsov’s favorite English saying, “It’s not my first rodeo.”
Kuznetsov initially told reporters his goal celebration at the World Cup of Hockey, in which he played the part of a bird, was copied from a celebration in the FIFA video game. But then he recently said that the true meaning of the celebration is a secret only a handful of his Russian teammates know.
In that same World Cup game, he was mic’d up for NHL.com, and when a linesman approached Kuznetsov to tell him that Team North America was changing its goalie, Kuznetsov responded by telling him how he likes a steak prepared. He said joking with the linesman was a ploy for him to be able to get away with some cheating on faceoffs.
“Kuzy, I know he’s a real prideful guy,” Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “For him, it’s finding that balance of being that loose, goofy guy and then being as prideful as he is. Even if he does have a bad game, trying to find that balance where it does affect him because he wants to do well, but trying to turn the page as quick as he can.”
Home in Russia for the summer, Kuznetsov prohibited all talk of hockey with his family, something he has insisted upon since he was a teenager. He worked with recently retired NHLer Pavel Datsyuk’s trainer and made the mistake of asking him for a day off after 10 days without one. “He said, ‘Pavel never get day off.’ I go, ‘Okay,’ ” Kuznetsov said. He then reached out to friends across sports — hockey, boxing, soccer — for advice on how to recover quickly from poor outings.
Their answer was to prove himself at his next opportunity. With more of a spotlight on him and the Capitals this season, Kuznetsov intends to enjoy himself while doing just that.
“All you have to do is try and forget that quicker and just keep working and wait for when you have a next chance to show people how you’re going to play and what you did different,” Kuznetsov said. “All you have to do is just show the people and yourself what you’re changing. You’re always changing something because if something going wrong, you have to change, not somebody else around you. You have to change something, and you have to change your game and maybe your mentality.”