After slump, Kuznetsov sees more fun in games

Once team’s lead­ing scorer, he re­al­ized he wasn’t hav­ing fun in ’16

Baltimore Sun - - NHL - By Is­abelle Khur­shudyan

WASH­ING­TON — Evgeny Kuznetsov kicked a leg up, flapped his arms and hooted, look­ing so un­bur­dened that he might ac­tu­ally take flight like the bird he was mim­ick­ing. He then pro­ceeded to — ahem — chirp at the op­pos­ing team’s bench, and after tak­ing a seat, a Team Rus­sia team­mate sug­gested he set­tle down. But Kuznetsov knew bet­ter, in­sist­ing on a lit­tle bit of fun.

Last sea­son, Kuznetsov be­came a metaphor for the Wash­ing­ton Cap­i­tals, a daz­zling reg­u­lar-sea­son per­former who fell flat in the NHL play­offs. He went from the team’s lead­ing scorer to manag­ing just two points in the post­sea­son, his slump shoul­der­ing some of the blame for Wash­ing­ton again be­ing ousted in the sec­ond round.

While oth­ers strug­gled to un­der­stand what had caused Kuznetsov’s sud­den scor­ing drought, a sum­mer of soul-search­ing led him to be­lieve it was be­cause he’d stopped hav­ing fun, too wor­ried about a string of poor per­for­mances to flap his wings and im­i­tate a strut­ting chicken.

Ex­pected to spend more time on the top line this sea­son, Kuznetsov is at the cen­ter of a Cap­i­tals team ex­pected to again con­tend for the Stan­ley Cup with the most depth up the mid­dle “in the his­tory of the team,” coach Barry Trotz said. After a break­out sea­son of 20 goals and 57 as­sists, Kuznetsov’s men­tal game will be cru­cial to him grow­ing his on-ice one.

“One thing about Kuzy is that he does have a lot of joy in his game,” Trotz said. “I think when joy goes out of his game, you can tell he’s fight­ing it a lit­tle bit, and it be­comes hard and the work­load gets real heavy. After a first time through, I think he’s go­ing to be much more pre­pared for it.”

Kuznetsov said the trou­ble started in early March, pre­cisely when a Reg­u­lar-sea­son opener Tonight, 8 TV: NBC Sports Net­work player doesn’t want pro­duc­tion to take a turn for the worse. He fin­ished the reg­u­lar sea­son hav­ing not scored a goal in 20 games, and that car­ried into the play­offs, when he man­aged just one even-strength point. Kuznetsov even kept track of ex­actly how many shots on net he’d taken with­out scor­ing.

It’s not un­usual for play­ers to be their own worst crit­ics, but Kuznetsov’s dis­ap­point­ment in him­self spi­raled and lin­gered. He felt like he’d let his team­mates down, oc­ca­sion­ally too ashamed to face them and emo­tion­ally re­treat­ing.

“I tried to think too much about the game and why it’s not go­ing well and tried to do some dif­fer­ent things, but all I have to do is al­ready for­get and just play the next game,” Kuznetsov said. “Other guys are pretty, pretty good with that. They al­ways for­get the game right away. The next morn­ing, they’re smil­ing and they show you they’re OK. We lost, and maybe he did some cou­ple mis­takes, maybe key mis­takes, maybe the team lost the game and he get a bad penalty, but he come back next morn­ing and show the team, show the train­ers, show the coaches that he al­ready for­get and he smil­ing.

“But I’m not this guy. I’m al­ways wor­ried about that and why my line doesn’t play well, why I played bad. Even if you guys think I play well, I have the dif­fer­ent think­ing. I al­ways have to do some­thing dif­fer­ent, and if I not en­joy the hockey, if I don’t have fun, it’s al­ways bad for me.”

But a Kuznetsov who’s not en­joy­ing him­self is hard to rec­on­cile with the player known for be­ing one of the most light­hearted mem­bers of the locker room. His pregame rou­tine in­cludes watch­ing “Fam­ily Feud” and “Deal or No Deal” in the locker room after morn­ing skates. When he gets home after games, his wife and daugh­ter are typ­i­cally sleep­ing, so he plays video games to re­lax.

His style of play is even fun, slick skat­ing cou­pled with dekes and mes­mer­iz­ing passes, such as his sig­na­ture back­hand from half­way around the net. His wacky goal cel­e­bra­tions have in­cluded glee­fully slid­ing down the ice on his back while mir­ror­ing a pad­dling mo­tion with his stick; do­ing pushups; shoot­ing a bow and ar­row; and a las­so­ing mo­tion that was in­spired by a team meal at a “cow­boy restau­rant” in Cal­gary and Kuznetsov’s fa­vorite English say­ing: “It’s not my first rodeo.”

At the World Cup of Hockey in Septem­ber, he played the part of a bird after scor­ing, which he ini­tially told re­porters was a copy­cat of a cel­e­bra­tion in the FIFA video game. But he re­cently said the true mean­ing of the cel­e­bra­tion is a se­cret only a hand­ful of his Rus­sian team­mates know. In that same World Cup game, he was mic’d up for NHL.com, and when a lines­man ap­proached Kuznetsov to tell him that Team North Amer­ica was chang­ing its goalie, Kuznetsov re­sponded with his steak pref­er­ences. He said jok­ing with the lines­man was a ploy to be able to get away with some cheat­ing on face­offs.

“Kuzy, I know he’s a real pride­ful guy,” de­fense­man Brooks Or­pik said. “For him, it’s find­ing that bal­ance of be­ing that loose, goofy guy and then be­ing as pride­ful as he is. Even if he does have a bad game, try­ing to find that bal­ance where it does af­fect him be­cause he wants to do well, but try­ing to turn the page as quick as he can.”

Home in Rus­sia for the sum­mer, Kuznetsov pro­hib­ited all talk of hockey with his fam­ily, some­thing he’s in­sisted on since he was a teenager. He worked with re­cently re­tired NHL star Pavel Dat­syuk’s trainer and made the mis­take of ask­ing for him a day off after 10 days with­out one. “He said, ‘Pavel never get day off.’ I go, ‘OK,’ ” Kuznetsov said. He then reached out to friends across sports — hockey, box­ing, soc­cer — for ad­vice on how to quickly re­cover from poor out­ings.

Their an­swer was to prove him­self at his next op­por­tu­nity. With more spot­light on him and the Cap­i­tals this sea­son, Kuznetsov in­tends to en­joy him­self while do­ing just that.

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