Kuznetsov on the rise

Best still to come for Chelyabinsk-born star

09.12.2017
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Yevgeni Kuznetsov of the Washington Capitals has medalled at seven out of his 10 IIHF tournaments. Here he receives the bronze medal from Russian legend Vladislav Tretiak at the 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship on home ice in Moscow. Photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images

Whether he’s wearing the uniform of the Washington Capitals or the Russian national team, Yevgeni Kuznetsov is a consummate showman.

The 25-year-old centre boasts the puckhandling talent of the old Soviet superstars, and his ability to generate offence from behind the net evokes Wayne Gretzky. He’s also earned a reputation for colourful goal celebrations, including twirling his finger, saluting, firing an arrow or flapping his arms like a bird.

Yet recently, Kuznetsov has toned it a little down in the celebration department – perhaps since this year’s Capitals aren’t the league-dominating powerhouse that won back-to-back Presidents’ Trophies in 2016 and 2017.

“I don’t care about my points, whatever,” Kuznetsov said. “I just care about the team game and just getting two points every night – points for the team. For me personally, it doesn't mean much.”

Nonetheless, the fourth-year NHLer’s scoring ability is a huge key to whatever success Washington may achieve this season under head coach Barry Trotz. Kuznetsov dipped to 59 points in 2016/17 after a career high of 77 the year before, but his 2017 playoff production – 10 points in 13 games – was his best to date. Even more is expected now since the former Traktor Chelyabinsk star signed an eight-year, $62.4-million contract extension on 2 July.

The Capitals witnessed the departure of many notable names in the off-season, including defencemen Kevin Shattenkirk, Karl Alzner and Nate Schmidt. But for Kuznetsov, the biggest adjustment was losing his long-time linemates at the start of July. First, Justin Wiliams, “Mr. Game Seven,” signed with the Carolina Hurricanes, and then Marcus Johansson was traded to the New Jersey Devils for two 2018 draft picks.

“It was a pretty tough day,” said Kuznetsov. “They’re nice guys and I played with them two years in a row. Now I’ve got new linemates, but that’s hockey, right? You have to deal with it.”

Getting upgraded to the first line alongside captain Alex Ovechkin has eased the transition. The six-time winner of the Rocket Richard Trophy as the NHL’s top goal-scorer got off to a fast start with 10 goals in his first 12 games – Ovechkin’s best October ever. He’s now at 21 goals from 30 games. Kuznetsov was the beneficiary, becoming the first player to get 11 assists in the first six games of the season since Joe Thornton in 2012/13. Before the season, Kuznetsov predicted the “Great 8” would hit 50 goals again, and that’s certainly a possibility. Kuznetsov reached 31 points (10+21) in 30 games.

Kuznetsov was there when Ovechkin married longt-ime girlfriend Nastya Shubskaya in the off-season. In Kuznetsov’s opinion, marriage hasn’t changed the veteran sniper: “He’s still the same. It's just like the little things. For me personally, when you get married, it’s just very important for the woman, right? For the man, it’s still the same life.”

Asked to comment on Kuznetsov’s strongest suit, Ovechkin said: “I think his skating ability. His control of the puck is also unbelievable, so I've enjoyed playing with him and I hope he enjoys playing with me.”

It’s not the first time Kuznetsov has paired up with Ovechkin. Assistant captain Nicklas Backstrom, who shone last season with 86 points (his highest output since 101 points in 2009/10), said he’s comfortable with seeing Kuznetsov handle a role he’s traditionally fulfilled himself. All three play together on Washington’s top power play unit.

“I feel like me and Kuzy are pretty similar players, pretty similar centres,” said Backstrom. “He’s really talented. He can give the puck to Ovi as good as me, I think. We both like to pass it and we've been doing it for a while. That’s something where I’m comfortable.”

None of them, though, is comfortable with Washington’s history of playoff flops. The Capitals have never made it past the second round in the Ovechkin era, and for Kuznetsov, those disappointments provided additional motivation to train hard this past summer.

“It’s so tough when you don't want to practise but you have to, but this summer it was pretty nice for me because I’m so hungry,” he explained. “I so want to do something, so it’s always nice when you actually want to go to practice.”

In IIHF competition, he’s enjoyed more success. He celebrated gold medals with Russia at the 2012 Worlds in Helsinki and the 2014 Worlds in Minsk. In fact, going back to Kuznetsov’s U18 debut in 2009, Russia has medalled at seven out of the 10 IIHF tournaments he’s played.

The most dramatic victory of Kuznetsov’s career remains Russia’s 5-3 comeback win over Canada in the 2011 World Junior final in Buffalo. The Canadians were leading 3-0 after two periods before coach Valeri Bragin’s team exploded for five unanswered goals. Kuznetsov assisted on three of them, and his most vivid memory of the final is as colourful as you’d expect.

“That tournament was legit. After the second period, we were going from the locker room to the game for the third period and we see some guys bringing the [celebratory beverages] already to the Canadian locker room. That's always [nonsense]. You never want to celebrate before you finish. Then they tried to bring the same [celebratory beverages] to our locker room and just (gestures hand to sweep it away)... no.”

Kuznetsov once quipped to a reporter about his post-playing career options: “Maybe I wanna sit somewhere in Switzerland, smoke nice cigars and drink the whiskey.” But the man who watches Family Feud before each Capitals game and names Steven Seagal as his favourite actor is a long way from hanging up his skates.

If he stays healthy, he could become the highest all-time NHL scorer from Chelyabinsk. Only three retired stars from the industrial city in the Ural Mountains are ahead of Kuznetsov currently: Sergei Gonchar (811 points), Sergei Makarov (384), and Vitali Yachmenever (216). And Kuznetsov has said he’ll return to Chelyabinsk, which will co-host the 2018 IIHF U18 World Championship with Magnitogorsk in April, with his wife Nastya and his daughter Ecenia after his NHL days are done. He has supported orphans and sled hockey players in the area.

Clearly, this silky showman has got lots left to give.

LUCAS AYKROYD
– With files from Carol Schram

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