It’s no secret that the Capitals’ resident bird-man is underperforming lately. In both the mid-season roundtable and the latest episode of Japers’ Rink Radio, Kuznetsov is constantly mentioned when discussing players who need to be better in the final chunk of the season. But how exactly does he need to improve?
Below are select statistics from three different seasons: 2015-16 (his first 82-game season), 2017-18 (when he set a career-high point total of 83), and the current season. Unless otherwise noted, numbers are for the full season.
Looking at his numbers for this season, there isn’t much that jumps out in a good way. His assists per game, which is the highest it’s been through his entire career, is good but not great. An even plus-minus rating isn’t inherently bad, but it isn’t inherently good either. It just...is. His 0.93 points per game just barely cracks the top-50 in the league, tied at 49 with Brandon Pirri (VGK), Viktor Arvidsson (NSH), and Thomas Chabot (OTT). 41 points through 44 games, on the surface, is a pretty decent pace until you dig a little deeper into how those points are split. More on that later.
The numbers that are more concerning are the ones that jump out in a bad way. For example: Kuznetsov’s faceoff percentage, which is currently sitting at 39.2%. Placing a lot of value in a player’s faceoff percentage isn’t always productive, but when it is this bad is certainly warrants some worry. Kuznetsov’s strength has never been at the faceoff dot (he has never finished a season at or above 50%), but he is really struggling this season. His faceoff differential is sitting at -129, which is the worst in the league. Only 40.6% of his starts are in the defensive zone, so at least he spends less time taking faceoffs in more dangerous situations, but it is still concerning. Part of being a center in the NHL is being reliable in the faceoff circle, so this is something he needs to improve on.
Kuznetsov also has 19 minor penalties so far this season, which is second on the team (Michal Kempny leads with 20) and tied with Jacob Trouba and Dylan Larkin for 11th in the league. The Capitals have a penalty problem - their 185 minor penalties lead the league - and Kuznetsov’s frequent trips to the box are not helping. The Capitals’ penalty kill is only operating at a 77.3% success rate, which is tied for seventh-worst in the league, and their 40 power play goals against are second only to Colorado. Washington’s more frequent offenders, including Kuznetsov, need to do their part to clean up their game and try and stay out of the box.
There have been several moments this season when Kuznetsov has looked uncharacteristically sloppy on the ice, which is partially reflected in his penalty total. It is also reflected in his defensive play, or lack thereof. Below are two shots-against heat maps, one for the Capitals overall and one for the Capitals with Kuznetsov:
The Caps allow way more unblocked shots when Kuznetsov is on the ice, allowing opposing offenses to become more of a threat. Kuznetsov has never really been known for his abilities as a defense-minded forward, but this is alarming. Additionally, it is particularly frustrating this season because he isn’t producing enough offensively to offset his defensive mistakes.
Speaking of a lack of offense, let’s revisit his goals/assists split for this season. 41 points through January is only five fewer than his total last season and is still a relatively good pace. What is concerning, however, is the ratio of goals to assists. While Kuznetsov has remained pretty consistent in racking up assists, his goals have been dropping off. He has only found the back of the net nine times this season; 174 players in the league have more goals than Kuznetsov, including 5 Capitals. Additionally, only three of his nine goals have come at even strength. He is only averaging 0.2 goals per game, which is his lowest average since he hit 0.14 in 2014-15. At one point this season, he went 17 games without a goal. This is not, however, a shots on goal issue, because his 124 shots are second in Washington only to Ovechkin’s 196. This brings us to the last red flag for this season: Kuznetsov’s shooting percentage.
A 7.26 SH% is bad, folks. The league average this season is 9.8%, and the league average from 2013 through 2018 is 9.14%. A good benchmark is 10% — anything at or above 10% is considered a good shooting percentage. Kuznetsov’s career shooting percentage, for example, was a solid 11.66% through last season. So why did things turn for the worse this season? It’s clear that the puck luck pendulum has swung pretty far in the “unlucky” direction for Kuznetsov this season, and puck luck is part of it, but so is player ability. A high shot total doesn’t mean as much if it isn’t made up of a lot of high quality shots, and the quality Kuznetsov’s play has been inconsistent up and down the ice.
So what, exactly, is the problem with Kuznetsov? Why is he playing the way he’s playing? Unfortunately, the only person who can truly answer that question is the bird-man himself. There has been a lot of discussion this season about the amount of effort Kuznetsov puts into his game, including this quote from GM Brian MacLellan:
3. Interesting quote about Evgeny Kuznetsov: "He could be one of the best players in the league if he chose to be." Not to read too much into it, but it echoes what Kuzy said about himself in Oct: "To be MVP, you have to work hard 365 (days) a year, but I'm not ready for that."— Adam Zielonka (@Adam_Zielonka) January 11, 2019
“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.”
So perhaps Caps fans expecting too much from this Russian centerman, because he seems pretty clear that he is not ready to make that next step. Are they asking something of him that he’s obviously not ready to give? Have they set their expectations too high? But on the other hand, is his attitude an excuse for where his play is this season?
The bottom line is this: Evgeny Kuznetsov is currently playing like an average NHLer and that’s not where his proven skill level is. However, the only person who can turn things around is Kuznetsov, and he will only do so when he is ready. All Caps fans can do is wait.