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We Need To Talk About Evgeny Kuznetsov

It’s time to address the Russian elephant in the room.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Washington Capitals at New York Islanders John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

After the Caps drafted Evgeny Kuznetsov 26th overall in 2010, fans watched excitedly as he began tearing up the KHL, and team and fans were eagerly anticipating his eventual arrival in DC. And while it took a little longer than expected, he proved why there was so much hype once he got to the NHL. His speed, vision, and playmaking abilities were all elite. He was a joy to watch, and seeing his creativity with the puck was a breath of fresh air.

It was his breakout season in 2017-18 that really put everyone on notice, as he had a stellar campaign of 83 points in 79 games — which he then followed up with an astounding 32 points in 25 playoff games en route to the Cup, the most on the team and the whole League in that magical postseason

Unfortunately, since lifting the Cup, the Kuznetsov we all thought would be the norm going forward just hasn’t shown up. His points per game have gone from 1.05 in 2017-18 to .83 this year; his playoff scoring rate has followed a similar pattern, dropping from 1.33 to 0.85 last spring to 0.63 in the team’s brief bubble stay. To state the obvious, that’s trending in the wrong direction.

Perhaps the dropoff in offense would be slightly more acceptable if he made up for it in some other part of his game like his defense or his work in the faceoff dot... but that hasn’t been the case. In fact, over the last two seasons Kuznetsov has been one of the worst defensive forwards, and he’s in the bottom TWO percentile in the league in expected goals against.

Let that sink in. Of the 580.5~ forwards (580 last season and 581 the season before) that played over that time, Kuznetsov is in the absolute bottom in suppressing scoring chances.

Now Kuznetsov was never going to be a Selke winner, and that’s generally been okay when he’s produced offensively — but his lack of offense, combined with his poor efforts in other areas, is becoming a real concern. If he’s poor defensively and poor offensively then what is he really doing?

A great way to visualize this is to see the offensive and defensive impacts the Capitals have when Kuznetsov was on and off the ice in 2019-20:

When Kuznetsov was on the ice the Capitals got absolutely caved in defensively (+16) and were also below average in creating offense (-4).

Now look at what the Capitals looked like when Kuznetsov wasn’t on the ice:

When he’s off the ice, the Capitals are very good offensively (+9) and still pretty good defensively (-3, though the slot could use some cleanup). If your team is much better at both ends of the ice... well, that’s a problem.

Simply put, there’s absolutely no way the Capitals will win a Cup when Kuznetsov is playing like he has the last two seasons. So the question becomes, what should the Capitals do with him?

It seems as if there are three potential options.

First would be tied to the coaching search. There’s a chance that his issues were coaching based, so the hope is that whoever takes over as the Caps’ new head coach can get Kuznetsov playing like what he is: an 80+ point player that is at worst slightly negative defensively.

Surrounding him with reliable defensive players would go a long way toward addressing those defensive liabilities. His best season analytically by far was 2015-16, when he skated alongside Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams - two wingers with a strong defensive side but also with the ability to hang with him on offense.

More importantly, perhaps a coach can get him to adjust his attitude about performing at his best — we all remember his comments from early last season:

“To be MVP, you have to work hard 365 [days] in a year, but I’m not ready for that. I want to have fun, and I want to make those risky plays when sometimes you don’t have a play and you guys don’t understand every time those plays. It’s not easy to make. 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.”

The second option would be moving Kuznetsov to the wing. On the wing, Kuznetsov doesn’t have to spend too much time focusing on the defensive side and can put his focus solely on creating magic in the offensive zone. If the Capitals can put him with a defensively responsible center that will do the heavy lifting and help get the puck up the ice to Kuznetsov, that could work — and it wouldn’t be completely out of his comfort zone, as he played right wing back in the KHL.

If Kuznetsov can’t get his game going at center and won’t switch to wing then there’s only one more option and that, unfortunately, is to trade him. It would suck to lose the exuberant, electrifying, homegrown Russian — but if the Capitals’ focus is to win as many Cups with Ovechkin as possible, they simply can’t have the Kuznetsov they’ve had the last two seasons (and certainly not with the amount of money he’s making). What that trade will bring in or what it should be is a completely different discussion. The hope is it never has to get to that point.

Kuznetsov has sort of taken over what used to be Alex Ovechkin’s role: as he goes, so go the Capitals. So for the window of contention to remain open even a little bit, the team either needs their high flying center to come back, move him to wing, or move him out and make room for players that don’t bury their team at both ends of the ice.

Basically, something needs to change.