There’s a difference between the 2020-21 version of Evgeny Kuznetsov and what we’ve seen through nine games of the 2021-22 NHL season.
The bumpy campaign the 29-year-old Capitals forward had last year is in the past now and the fun-loving Kuznetsov, who was a 20-goal, 70-point player not too long ago, is back.
As Alex Ovechkin continues firing shots past goaltenders at his usual absurd rate, just as important to Washington’s 5-1-3 start has been the play of Kuznetsov. He’s second on the team in scoring with five goals and 13 points as he fills in for the injured Nicklas Backstrom on the Capitals’ top line. Playing a part in that rebound in production is his 21:07 of ice time per night, the first time in his nine-year NHL career he’s averaged over 20 minutes of per game.
Last season was not easy for many NHL players, Kuznetsov included. He had to adjust to new head coach Peter Laviolette while also testing positive for COVID-19 twice. The result was a nine-goal, 29-point season, the lowest points per game average he’s recorded since his sophomore season in the league.
Staying put after uncertain summer
Kuznetsov’s down year led to many questions entering the offseason. Would general manager Brian MacLellan seek a change of scenery for the forward, whose contract carries a hefty $7.8 million cap hit through 2024-25 (per Cap Friendly) and a modified no-trade clause? Or would Kuznetsov be left exposed in the Seattle expansion draft?
Nothing materialized and Kuznetsov remained a Capitals. What was needed was for him to put his offensive struggles behind him. But while last season was tough, it served as motivation heading into the summer.
“It was one of the years you want to forget, but at the same time, you want to remember,” Kuznetsov said in September. “It is like when you lose the game in the playoffs or any Game 7, you sit in the locker room and feel that pain. And next year you don’t want to feel that pain again, so you can use that as motivation, you can use that as a target, as a goal. For me, that wasn’t nice.
“When everything [is] good in your life, you are not moving. you are not growing, you are not getting better. It is fun to see everything and I hope in 10 years when I enjoy my life, I will enjoy this time and remember it.”
Evgeny Kuznetsov: star of the PK pic.twitter.com/2cIW2xTMnt
— NBCSports Washington (@NBCSWashington) October 23, 2021
It’s been an enjoyable first three weeks of the season for Kuznetsov. He has points in seven of Washington’s first nine games, four of which were multi-point nights. Laviolette has also entrusted the forward with additional responsibility, such as first-unit power play time and a job on penalty kill, where he’s playing over a minute per game there after averaging no more than 13 seconds per game in any season entering 2021-22.
“The way he’s playing right now is a credit to him. Just him,” said Laviolette last month. “He put in the time this summer, he was on the ice all the time, he came to camp in great shape, and he started the season the right way.”
Backstrom is eligible to come off injured reserve this weekend but there is no timetable yet for when he’ll actually suit up again for the Capitals. While they wait for his return, Kuznetsov will remain as their No. 1 center and continue riding the high that has come with the start to the season.
“He’s having fun, I think he’s enjoying the game,” said Capitals forward Tom Wilson. “When I first met him and early on his career, it was just a joy to be at the rink and he was so fun to be around. I think you’re starting to see that again a little bit. It is a job and day in and day out, 82 games, it can be a grind at times. It’s the best job in the world, I love it, but I think he’s just kind of rekindled that joy for the game.”
Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.