Kuznetsov putting on dazzling display
WASHINGTON — The puck on Evgeny Kuznetsov’s stick and the way the two move in concert elicits a certain awe from those who watch him most. On a Capitals team that has Alex Ovechkin’s shot, Nicklas Backstrom’s passing and Braden Holtby’s saves, it’s Kuznetsov who manages to be the most eye-catching.
“It looks like he’s dancing out there,” Backstrom said.
“You come watch a game, there are certain players that get people out of their seats, and it’s a joy to watch,” forward T.J. Oshie said. “I don’t even like watching hockey, so when I see Kuzy going, it’s one of the only times I enjoy.”
“It ’s effortless. It ’s smooth. It looks like he’s not even trying,” Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said. “He’ll come to a complete stop and reverse out of it. it’s fun to watch somebody do that stuff. It’s gotta be unbelievable to be able to play that way, you know? That’s what I always think about. How fun would that be if I could do that?”
Kuznetsov is certainly enjoying himself, and he’s not interested in much else. His four-point clinic in the Capitals’ 5-2 win over the Vegas Golden Knights on Wednesday has him at seven points through the first four games, apparently picking up where he left off in the playoffs, when he was the league’s leading scorer with 12 goals and 20 assists en route to Washington’s franchise-first Stanley Cup.
The grand stage and Kuznetsov’s dazzling play on it elevated his reputation in the NHL, but his teammates still don’t think many have grasped exactly how good he is. Tonight’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, when Kuznetsov will share the ice with two of the league’s best centers in Auston Matthews and John Tavares, is another opportunity for Washington’s gregarious 26-year-old Russian to show he belongs in that elite echelon.
“I think he’s up there with the top five players in the league, and I don’t know, he just doesn’t get the recognition for some reason,” Oshie said.
Kuznetsov smiled as he was relayed that comment and then asked whether winning the Hart Trophy, the NHL’s MVP award, is a goal.
“I don’t give a [expletive] about that,” Kuznetsov said. “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, but that’s not my style.”
It’s the sort of counterintuitive, contrarian statement teammates have come to expect from Kuznetsov. After the Capitals lost to the Penguins in the second round two years ago, players had sullen expressions as they conducted their exit interviews with reporters two days later. When it was Kuznetsov’s turn, he asked media, “Why all of you act like someone died?” He kicks up a leg and flaps his arms like a bird after some goals, a celebration that ruffles opponents’ feathers but is a favorite of his young daughter.
“I was watching the movie a few days ago about the Brazilian soccer players,” Kuznetsov said. “For them, futbol, the soccer game, that’s the biggest day in their year. They have fun, they enjoy, they dance and they’re smiling every time. That’s what I’m trying to do, too. I try to have fun and I try to enjoy every second on the ice. You never know when you’re gonna be retired, right?”
But along with that, despite Kuznetsov’s protestations, teammates have seen the competitive side of him. “There are some people who are talented and just want to get by, but Kuzy is talented and he wants to be the best,” said Carolina Hurricanes captain Justin Williams, who was Kuznetsov’s linemate for two years in Washington. Fittingly, head- to- head matchups against other top centers bring out the best in him, perhaps because he feels he has something to prove.
“He wants that responsibility, and he’s always challenging himself to try something new,” Williams said. “That’s the brain that he has — ‘I want to be the best player, I don’t want to just be good.’ And that bodes well for Washington because he’s a once-in-a-while talent.”
TSN analyst Ray Ferraro, who played 18 seasons in the NHL, said Kuznetsov is as underappreciated an offensive player as there is in the league. Washington coaches and management think the next step for him is to be more consistently dominant, as he was against Vegas on Wednesday night. They’ve given him penaltykilling duties this season as a way to force him to raise his two-way play and improve on faceoffs. The Capitals prefer pushing him through the situations they put him in rather than some conversation about what they expect.
“I think he’s going to rise to the occasion every time,” MacLellan said.