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Caps’ Dynamic Duo is Lying in Wait

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Alex Ovechkin’s numbers with a resurgent Evgeny Kuznetsov have been great so far and it might be time for Peter Laviolette to put the two together

New York Islanders v Washington Capitals - Game Four Photo by Chase Agnello-Dean/NHLI via Getty Images

One of the underdiscussed aspects of the Capitals’ surprisingly successful 2021 season has been the resurgence of Evgeny Kuznetsov. This year at 5v5, Kuznetsov is playing career-best defense (much more on this in WLB this weekend), all while outscoring opponents 14-6 and owning nearly 60% of the expected goal share.

Yet another wrinkle this year? Kuznetsov and Alex Ovechkin, when playing together, have been... extraordinarily effective. That might be a surprise, given the heat map that the two had when playing together last year:

Ovechkin & Kuznetsov offensive heat map.
Ovechkin & Kuznetsov defensive heat map

Yet, in the 92 five-on-five minutes that the two have played together this year, the tables have completely flipped. Here’s how the two are doing this year:

Kuznetsov & Ovechkin Together

Player 1 Player 2 CF/60 CA/60 CF% SF/60 SA/60 SF% GF/60 GA/60 GF% xGF/60 xGA/60 xGF% HDCF/60 HDCA/60 HDCF%
Player 1 Player 2 CF/60 CA/60 CF% SF/60 SA/60 SF% GF/60 GA/60 GF% xGF/60 xGA/60 xGF% HDCF/60 HDCA/60 HDCF%
Evgeny Kuznetsov Alex Ovechkin 65.3 52.3 55.6 33.3 26.1 56 2.6 2 57.1 3.7 2 65.2 15.7 9.5 57.79

That all looks pretty good, but it’s going to look a whole lot better when compared to some of the other top offensive pairs in the NHL:

NHL top offensive pairs stats

That’s a lot of green for Ovechkin and Kuznetsov, who only rank below Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl in expected goals per 60. Even better, Ovechkin and Kuznetsov hold their own defensively in this group of elite players too. Let’s take this same chart above, but add defensive categories in as well.

NHL top offensive pairs stats with defense added in

Kuznetsov and Ovechkin aren’t going to get mixed up with Aleksander Barkov anytime soon, but they’re solidly in the middle of the pack defensively, thanks to Peter Laviolette’s systems. Further, their defensive heat map from this year shows a pair of players who are (surprisingly!) playing well-above League-average defense:

Ovechkin & Kuznetsov defensive heat map this year.

Yet there is one obvious area where Kuznetsov and Ovechkin rank well-below these other pairs: time together. Of the above-listed pairs of players, only McDavid and Draisaitl have played less together, and Ovechkin’s most frequent teammate is still Nicklas Backstrom.

Funny thing though: in 208 minutes together, Ovechkin and Backstrom’s offensive shot generation at 5v5 has been subpar and they have an expected goals percent below 40%:

Ovechkin & Backstrom offensive heat map this year.

It is worth noting that the sample size for Ovechkin & Kuznetsov isn’t nearly that large, and perhaps there’s something that Laviolette is seeing with the two of them together (and any coach would be crazy to mess with what’s been working so well of late). That said, it seems like it might be worth giving the Caps Rush n’ Attack some more time together to see if they can keep it up. At a minimum, the club appears to have a not-so-secret weapon lying in wait.