There were plenty of reasons to like the Washington Capitals heading into this season. They were coming off a strong 2014-15 performance, they already had a year of experience with the new system employed by Barry Trotz behind the bench and their goaltender was quickly evolving into one of the league’s better players at his position. Not to mention the fact that they employ perennial Hart Trophy candidate Alex Ovechkin.
On top of that, they added some key new pieces in T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams over the summer. Oshie, of course, is a gifted winger who seemed like a candidate for a change of scenery out of St. Louis, and Williams is the sort of clutch performer that any club with deep playoff aspirations would love to have. Their most important improvement, however, just might be the rise of Evgeny Kuznetsov.
To be clear, this isn’t Kuznetsov’s first year with the organization. He was drafted in 2010 (26th pick of the first round), finally broke in with 17 games in 2013-14 and suited up for 80 contests last year. But his performance early on this season seems to indicate he’s really beginning to reach his full potential now.
For the longest time, all we ever heard was that Kuznetsov was the best player not in the NHL. That’s because he was spending his time in the KHL, racking up 117 points over the course of 144 games for Traktor Chelyabinsk. In his first year with the Caps, he managed three goals and six assists over 17 games in March and April of 2014. There were signs he could be really good, but that wasn’t enough time to show any level of consistency.
Last season proved to be a huge stepping stone though. He was still new to the NHL and, like all his other teammates in D.C., was adapting to what Trotz was all about as a coach. His 11 goals and 26 assists weren’t headline-grabbing, but they were solid for a 22-year-old playing out his first full season in the most competitive hockey league in the world. He seemed to pick up steam as the year unfolded, notching five goals and eight assists in his final 17 games. While some youngsters tend to hit a wall late in their first full season, Kuznetsov was only getting better.
That trend continued into the playoffs, where he tallied five goals and two assists in the Caps’ 14 postseason contests. Included in that stretch was a remarkable series-clinching goal in Game 7 of the first round series with the Islanders. Kuznetsov made a power move from right to left across the entire attack zone, leaving pretty much every New York player in his wake.
A performance like that is obviously huge for any player, but it’s especially big for a young player developing confidence on the sport’s biggest stage.
Any confidence Kuznetsov may have garnered from the 2015 playoffs is carrying over in a big way. Through 13 games, he has five goals (including a hat trick) and 10 assists. He’s tied for the team lead in points with some guy named Ovechkin. That’s saying something, since his team currently ranks fourth in the NHL with 3.23 goals per game. He’s also built a good rapport with Ovi, both on and off the ice. He’s rapidly developing into a staple on the league’s sixth-ranked power play (21.9 percent).
Kuznetsov has quickly evolved into a key cog on a dangerous team. Many had Washington as a dark horse candidate to reach, or even win, the Stanley Cup this season. Now, they might be even better than originally anticipated.
With Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, the Caps have one of the very best players in the world, as well a quietly elite sidekick. In Oshie, Williams and Marcus Johansson, they have some other, high-quality weapons that they can usually count on up front. It’s unclear which group Kuznetsov will ultimately fit into but, if he continues on his current trajectory, they can expect very good things.
That means an already talented team already got stronger and all they had to do was develop a guy they drafted five years ago.