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Evgeny Kuznetsov: The Banksy of Hockey

The 26-year-old is becoming one of the league’s top centers – but isn’t necessarily trying to.

NHL: Washington Capitals at Calgary Flames Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

Evgeny Kuznetsov leans back casually in his stall, collected but also chuckling, even without conversation as he takes off his shin pads. Jokes easily weave into his words as he sports a semi-permanent smile.

Behind joyous blue eyes, Kuznetsov’s mind is always running – whether he’s on the ice or not.

“You know, I always enjoy the life,” he shrugs with a laugh. “It doesn’t matter how we play last night, it’s about how you going to come next morning.”

The 26-year-old winger is naturally happy and never too focused on individual stats, and it’s always been that way when it comes to hockey.

It’s a mentality that Kuznetsov’s adopted over the years, which he credits to his teammates and coaches over the years. He’s combined that positivity with a sense of humour, as well as an unparalleled, unorthodox style of play that has made him one of Washington’s top performers.

“On the ice, he’s a very gifted offensive player, lots of poise and one of the biggest talents in the league, I think,” Lars Eller said. “Off the ice, he’s just a pretty laid back guy, always smiling, always joking around and pretty outspoken.”

Growing up in Chelyabinsk, Russia, Kuznetsov said it took him time to develop his style, and that he was able to model his game after teammates, coaches and players he admired as he moved through Russia’s leagues.

At 17, Kuznetsov showed scouts and coaches that he was ready to take his game to the next level. His unique playing style and ability translated over to his 2008-09 campaign with Traktor Chelyabinsk’ U17, where he put up 28 goals and 54 points in just 23 games.

When asked about his talent, Kuznetsov deferred, crediting his success to his coaches and a little bit of luck.

“Grew up with pretty nice coaches,” Kuznetsov said. “If you need something, they’ll always talk to you eye-to-eye and never behind your back. That’s what you need. When people treat you like an old man, when they show you you have responsibility and you’re not just 17 years old, that’s what young players need.”

After posting 65 goals and 146 points in 210 KHL games, the 2010 first-round pick finally made his way over to Washington for the latter half of the 2013-14 campaign. Since then, he’s become a top-6 center and plays an important role night in and night out.

Kuznetsov was a vital part of Washington’s 2017-18 Cup campaign, registering 27 goals and 83 points in the regular season, then leading all skaters with 32 points in 24 games through the postseason. Most importantly, he was the one whose overtime tally finally lifted the Capitals past the Penguins to advance to the Eastern Conference Final.

This season, Kuznetsov’s continued to find success, and has 12 goals and 48 points in 48 games.

“He’s obviously a pretty good player and carries a lot of the offensive load for us every night,” Tom Wilson said. “That’s tough, it’s a long season. To remain that consistent and do that on any given night is huge.”

As for his personality, Wilson smiled.

“He’s definitely unique,” Wilson said. “He’s figuring out how to make his jokes over here, the same ones that he could think in Russian.”

His teammates are also well aware that the 26-year-old is already establishing himself as a superstar in this league.

For Kuznetsov, though, in his always-operating hockey mind, he shies away from being considered an “All-Star,” somewhat afraid to be described as one. And although his playing style reflects that of an elite center, but that’s not the point of the game for him.

“I don’t give a s––– about that,” Kuznetsov said earlier this season. “It’s just about have fun every night you go out there. If you don’t have fun and you don’t want to enjoy, you don’t want to play hockey, you should be retired.”

NHL: Washington Capitals-Stanley Cup Championship Parade Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

Even off the ice, he struggles with his “superstar” status. Back in his hometown, Kuznetsov said it’s hard to even walk down the street without being recognized. He prefers D.C. because he’s able to blend in and walk wherever he wants.

He admitted that sometimes the superstar status can be fun and he does enjoy interacting with fans, but personally, he doesn’t like the fame.

“When I do haircut, I’m always asked about job... I tell them I’m Russian hockey player,” Kuznetsov laughed. “People change a little bit, some people treat you like a superstar, I don’t like that. I like to be like everybody else.”

As Kuznetsov continues to excel in his NHL career, he has acknowledged that the game is changing, and in turn, he’s had to focus more on the simple things, from blocking shots to tracking pucks.

Still, looking at his stickhandling, numbers and constant grin, it’s evident that no matter what, as he excels in his career, he makes sure that he’s having a good time. But it’s not just for him – his personality, that sense of humor and constant jokes are for his teammates as well.

“If you’re gonna come with head down, young guys going to see you and gonna keep their head down, too. That’s not [my] style,” Kuznetsov said.