One Wash­ing­ton Cap­i­tals player stood out to ex­perts as­sess­ing team’s skat­ing abil­i­ties, writes Jesse Dougherty.

Ottawa Citizen - - SPORTS -

The judges sat four across, grip­ping Star­bucks cups and wa­ter bot­tles, and squinted through the glass as the Cap­i­tals cir­cled the ice be­low.

Their ob­jec­tive was sim­ple in con­cept, if dif­fi­cult in prac­tice.

“We’re try­ing to see which of the Cap­i­tals’ play­ers would make the best fig­ure skater,” said Shira Selis, one of the judges. “So far, there’s not much.”

As the world turns its at­ten­tion to fig­ure skat­ing at the Win­ter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, these four fig­ure-skat­ing coaches were asked to fix their eyes on the Cap­i­tals dur­ing an hour-long prac­tice last week. Skat­ing is the fun­da­men­tal skill of hockey, a re­quire­ment to play, a defin­ing trait for some play­ers, the one as­pect of the game that threads be­tween shoot­ing and pass­ing and puck-han­dling and goal­tend­ing.

And while hockey and fig­ure skat­ing seem as sim­i­lar as hockey and bak­ing, the core tech­niques of skat­ing are the same across the two sports. So while it was hard for Selis and the three other coaches to pick out the Cap­i­tals’ most promis­ing fig­ure skater, it wasn’t im­pos­si­ble.

Af­ter watch­ing a full prac­tice of drills and scrim­mag­ing, point­ing out the Cap­i­tals’ in­con­sis­ten­cies in their skat­ing as they moved about the ice, the judges agreed that one player could lace up fig­ure skates and maybe pull off a de­cent pro­gram af­ter a few years of prac­tice.

That was cen­tre Evgeny Kuznetsov.

“Who’s that?” asked Lyn Linke Witt, an­other coach, as Kuznetsov skated past.

“That’s Kuznetsov, we keep notic­ing him,” Selis an­swered.

“He’s got such nice lean,” Witt added.

“And he’s got re­ally good crossovers,” Selis pointed out. “Those would be good crossovers in fig­ure skat­ing.”

The four coaches, who have been on the ice since they were kids, teach the finer points of skat­ing to fig­ure skaters and hockey play­ers alike.

They each bring a sliver (or sev­eral) of skat­ing ’s many com­plex­i­ties to the ta­ble, and were look­ing for many sub­tleties while watch­ing the Cap­i­tals. Those in­cluded power, ex­ten­sion with the free leg while skat­ing to max­i­mize power, pos­ture, bal­ance, strong crossovers, and good edge work while cut­ting.

“There is al­ways some­thing new in skat­ing, some new quality or tech­nique,” said Kristin Huppi a doc­tor of phys­i­cal ther­apy who coaches in Ash­burn, Va. “So what was ‘good’ or ‘right’ five years ago is prob­a­bly a bit dif­fer­ent now, and then will be dif­fer­ent five years from now. Be­ing a good skater re­quires con­stant work and up­keep.”

The coaches, while not­ing that some Cap­i­tals could use a re­fresher on skat­ing fun­da­men­tals, found a re­deem­ing quality in a small hand­ful of play­ers.

The fourth coach, Adam Mun­day, was in­trigued by for­ward Brett Con­nolly.

“I like him the best right now. He’s bring­ing his feet back un­der­neath him, he has good pos­ture and bal­ance, and when he’s do­ing his crossovers, he’s stay­ing down, he’s not bounc­ing. Be­cause re­mem­ber, the goal in skat­ing is to go for­ward, not up and down.”

Witt on for­ward Jakub Vrana: “He doesn’t hop as much on his crossovers, they are ac­tu­ally pretty nice. He pushes out of it like we want our fig­ure skaters to.”

Selis on de­fence­man Matt Niska­nen: “He’s not go­ing all that fast, but he has re­ally grace­ful crossovers. I have been re­ally im­pressed with him.”

Huppi on for­ward T.J. Oshie: “Who is that? Oshie? His al­laround foot­work has re­ally caught my eye.”

“And then there is (Alex) Ovechkin,” Selis said, laugh­ing. “I think he has good tech­nique, but I don’t know if he has the grace to be a fig­ure skater.”

Then there was Kuznetsov, the one player whose com­pli­ments were not quickly off­set by a com­ment about poor pos­ture or in­ef­fec­tive crossovers or a lack of ex­ten­sion. Kuznetsov’s strong skat­ing was on dis­play Fri­day in the Cap­i­tals’ 4-2 win over the Colum­bus Blue Jack­ets in which he scored his 15th goal of the sea­son and ex­tended an as­sist streak to six games. In the open­ing min­utes, he played keep-away in­side the right face­off cir­cle, grace­fully skated him­self into open space and dished a pass to John Carl­son for a goal. Later in the first pe­riod, he flew out of the penalty box, used ev­ery bit of his off-leg ex­ten­sion to pick up speed down the left wing and knocked in a bounc­ing puck for a buzzer­beat­ing goal.

Kuznetsov said he learned his tech­nique by skat­ing five to six hours a day as a kid, when it was easy to cor­rect small mis­takes and com­mit tech­nique to mem­ory. He works with a pow­er­skat­ing coach for three to four weeks ev­ery sum­mer, and uses video of him­self to an­a­lyze his ten­den­cies.

He has not con­sid­ered a ca­reer in fig­ure skat­ing af­ter hockey. Not yet, at least.

“No, no, no,” Kuznetsov said, laugh­ing, when told that four fig­ure skat­ing coaches were im­pressed with his tech­nique and el­e­gance. “My grand­mother had fig­ure skates and I wore them a few times. Never again. Hockey skates are so much more com­fort­able.”

There is al­ways some­thing new in skat­ing, some new quality or tech­nique ... Be­ing a good skater re­quires con­stant work and up­keep.


Evgeny Kuznetsov is the Wash­ing­ton Cap­i­tal with the most po­ten­tial as a fig­ure skater, say four coaches asked to judge the foot­work of the team’s play­ers.

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