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Is Evgeny Kuznetsov Getting Better?

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The Caps need Evgeny Kuznetsov to step up his game from a disappointing 2019-20 season. So how has his 2020-21 campaign gone so far?

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Washington Capitals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

As noted in the offseason, the Capitals will not succeed if Evgeny Kuznetsov plays like he did in the 2018-19 and the 2019-20 season, when he struggled at both ends of the ice. Playoff success of any kind is often reliant upon depth up the middle - and with the way Kuznetsov played, the Caps lacked that center depth (to say nothing of the skill he was capable of bringing). So getting the Russian center back on track was one of the most important tasks awaiting the Capitals and new head coach Peter Laviolette this season.

Now that Kuznetsov has hit the 11-game mark, it seems appropriate to dissect how he’s doing and determine if he’s the same player from the last two years or if the Capitals are at least close to having their 2018 Stanley Cup-winning Kuznetsov back.

Fans certainly have their own opinions...

Let’s look at some of the base possession stats (via Natural Stat Trick). All stats are five-on-five adjusted. The first section is the the last two seasons combined, the second one is this season:

Those stats are very good and much better than anything he put up the last two seasons. To add onto it, here’s what the Capitals looks like when Kuznetsov is on the ice (via HockeyViz). Note: a “+” in offense and a “-” in defense are good, and the reverse is bad:

As you can see, when Kuznetsov is on the ice the offense is very potent and defense rarely sees a bad shot against them. For reference, in 2019-20, the Russian was -2 offensively and +15 (!) defensively. The season before that? +2 offensively and -25 (!!) defensively when on the ice. It’s safe to say the Kuznetsov we’ve seen so far is much better than what we saw two years prior.

And to just add to the point, here is Evolving Wild’s RAPM Chart for Kuznetsov last season compared to this season:

And HB Analytics charts comparing last season and this season:

Now there is one big caveat with this: Kuznetsov has been heavily deployed in the offensive zone so far this season. Natural Stat Trick has the center’s offensive zone start percentage at 88.14%; that’s first in the league among players who played at least 100 minutes. Kuznetsov’s offensive-zone faceoff start percentage is 79%, which leads the league by almost 3%! It’s much easier to produce offensively and not allow defensive chances against when most the time you start your shift in the offensive zone.

That being said, Kuznetsov isn’t being sheltered away from elite competition. PuckIQ has him with 44.1% of his ice time going against elite competition. That’s good for 31st among all centers in the league that have played at least 50 minutes against elite competition - he just happens to be facing them while already in the offensive zone:

It’s also worth noting that just getting heavy offensive starts doesn’t mean a player will automatically put up the strong analytics that Kuznetsov has. The following are the top 10 centers in the league in offensive zone starts with their possession stats (and take note of that last stat, CTOI%, which is the amount of their time playing against other teams elite players):

As you can see, yes Kuznetsov leads the league in offensize-zone starts, but he’s making the most of it while other elite centers aren’t. Evgeni Malkin is being deployed just slightly less than Kuznetsov in the offensize zone, and is facing the same elite competition, but his numbers are nowhere near Kuznetsov’s. Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point don’t even face half the difficult competition Kuznetsov does and their numbers aren’t as good, either.

Even just by the eye test you can see #92 is putting in more effort at both ends of the ice, but it’s showing up in the numbers as well. Consider that in the 2019-20 season, just 30.2% of Kuznetsov’s shifts were against elite competition and, as shown above, he did terrible with it. This season he’s facing higher competition more often (with nice offensive zone starts) and doing very well with it. Just getting more offensive zone starts alone wouldn’t create such a positive change; it takes effort to do that.

There’s no question that Kuznetsov has improved his on-ice impact this season at both ends of the ice. Now it’s a matter of keeping those numbers up. Could he still be better defensively? Sure, but that can be mitigated by deploying other centers (or his wingers) to do the defensive heavy lifting. Right now the team is letting Kuznetsov do what he does best: create offensive chances.