Evgeny Kuznetsov takes star turn in postseason spotlight

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For years, Nicklas Backstrom was the Washington Capitals unsung hero, playing his trade in the shadow of Alex Ovechkin. Amusingly enough, Backstrom’s presence probably explains why Evgeny Kuznetsov has been able to fly under the radar.

Perhaps it’s fitting that Kuznetsov’s importance to the Washington Capitals has truly come to forefront with Backstrom on the shelf.

Either way, if you haven’t taken notice of the rising star, now would be a good time to soak it all in.

Style and substance

In some ways, it’s absurd to realize that the abundantly dynamic center didn’t get more attention.

After all, Kuznetsov is a dazzling scorer and a gifted playmaker. The 25-year-old is in the middle of the best year of his already-impressive career, setting new highs in goals (27), points (83), and leaving any concerns about playoff production in the dust. His 19 playoff points ties Ovechkin for the team lead, while he finished second behind Ovechkin’s 87 points for the regular-season lead in Washington.

You don’t need to dig deep in the stats to see that he’s a big deal, but refreshingly enough, Kuznetsov brings plenty of the personality that makes Ovechkin so much fun. Actually, he might be even more expressive and over-the-top than Ovechkin.

Kuznetsov regularly says funny things, sometimes exasperating Capitals staffers with a stray f-bomb. Much like younger Ovechkin celebrating a goal with a Hendrix-like “stick on fire” celebration, the Russian center is generating his own trademark by flapping his eagle wings. Kuznetsov even busted that out after scoring the series-clinching overtime goal against the Pittsburgh Penguins:

And if that wasn’t enough for Kuznetsov to gain Internet love, there was this “man of the people” moment:

That’s the beauty, really. Not unlike Ovechkin, Kuznetsov combines style and substance in a way that sports teams – not to mention marketers – crave.

Clutch play

Kuznetsov is currently on a five-game point streak, collecting three goals and six assists. He’s only been held without a point in three of 14 games during this outstanding 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs run.

While it’s fair to argue that Backstrom is the better defensive player, that’s not really an insult, as the Swedish forward deservedly hovers around Selke conversations most years. Kuznetsov and Lars Eller have combined to carve up the Lightning so far, and his possession stats show that it’s not just about bounces and goals.

There’s an urge to wonder why it’s taken so long for Kuznetsov to get the kind of attention he’s beginning to receive, but it’s getting there. Consider what Barry Trotz said of the electric pivot in this Kristina Rutherford Sportsnet feature about Kuznetsov’s “creative genius.”

“If he wants to be a face of the NHL — if he really wants to — he can,” Trotz said of Kuznetsov.

That “if he really wants to” phrasing, not to mention Trotz mentioning that he’s “not Pavel Datsyuk” later on in the piece, maybe keys on some of the reluctance to truly crown Kuznetsov as a star.

Kuznetsov is at that point in his career where, fairly or not, he’s forced to silence doubters … possibly on his own bench.

From steal to stealing the spotlight

In a sense, it all stems back to his draft day.

On one hand, there’re RMNB’s anecdote about then-Capitals GM George McPhee winking in delight at selecting Kuznetsov. Even then, Kuznetsov slipping to the 26th pick of the 2010 NHL Draft seemed like a staggering drop, “Russian factor” or not. For a dash of perspective, Quinton Howden went right before Kuznetsov and Mark Visentin was selected after him at 27. Yeah, that’s the sort of steal that’s worthy of a knowing wink.

Perhaps the seeds were beginning to be planted even then: nitpicking certain elements of his game and background despite clear signs of star power. Signs that only grew brighter over time.

And, hey, those funny Getty draft portraits also provided an early preview of his personality:

via Getty

Ultimately, your opinion regarding Kuznetsov might illuminate where you stand on larger trends around the NHL.

When you’re creating as much offense as Kuznetsov does, there will often be mistakes. Sometimes glaring ones.

Luckily for the Capitals, the good heavily outweighs the bad, to the point that a keyed-in Kuznetsov can be a nauseating reality for opponents. The Tampa Bay Lightning have already experienced some of that queasiness.

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James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.