Why Evgeny Kuznetsov holds the key to Capitals' success

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 24: Evgeny Kuznetsov #92 of the Washington Capitals tosses a puck to the fans after the game against the Edmonton Oilers at Verizon Center on February 24, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Greg Fiume/NHLI via Getty Images)
Evgeny Kuznetsov of the Washington Capitals tosses a puck to the fans after the game against the Edmonton Oilers at Verizon Center on February 24, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES – Washington Capitals forward Evgeny Kuznetsov is taking a short-term view rather than thinking about the upcoming Stanley Cup Playoffs.

“I’m just trying to play game-by-game and focus on the next game, so I try not to think about what it’s going to be after the next game,” the 24-year-old forward said. “I just try to enjoy life and enjoy the moment.”

But according to Kuznetsov’s coach, that’s not quite the case. There’s an understanding from Kuznetsov that he didn’t perform last year in the postseason and he is trying to make sure he doesn’t repeat his disappointment from 2016.

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“He’s a smart person, he’s a smart guy and I think he gets it and first year he was under the radar and so he got a little freedom. Last year he wasn’t really under the radar,” Caps coach Barry Trotz said.

Though Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby often get most of the publicity around the team, it seems the last couple of seasons that as Kuznetsov goes, so go the NHL leading Capitals. Part of the reason why they were able to hit a franchise record 120 points in 2015-16 was because Kuznetsov went from a high-end prospect to an elite playmaking pivot. And part of the reason why Washington lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second-round of the postseason in one of the most disappointing series in franchise history was because Kuznetsov had just one point in six games.

Overall Kuznetsov had two points in 12 playoff games after having 77 points in 82 games during the regular season.

“Kuzy is such an exceptional player. I think you need all your top guys going (to succeed),” Trotz said.

Earlier in the season, it appeared Kuznetsov still had somewhat of a playoff hangover from his struggles in the postseason the previous spring. He had just nine points in his first 23 games, a stretch where the Capitals went 13-7-3. Washington looked fine but not nearly like the juggernaut they were the prior season.

Then from Dec. 5 through the Caps’ last game before their bye-week on Feb. 11, Kuznetsov had 35 points in 33 games and Washington went 26-4-3. Kuznetsov said he wasn’t worried that he would start to score and believed his hard work would pay off. Currently Kuznetsov has 51 points in 67 games.

“I’m Just trying to play hockey. If you’re going to keep doing the same thing, you’re going to keep working you will find some results for sure,” Kuznetsov said.

A theory about Kuznetsov’s slow start was that it had to do with his upcoming contract negotiation. As a pending restricted free agent this summer he is due for a major raise off his two-year, $6 million contract and there was some thought that he felt pressure to score so he could get a bigger deal. Kuznetsov didn’t believe it was a major issue at all.

“I don’t have to worry about that,” he shrugged.

Kuznetsov’s scoring trajectory this season is almost opposite to what it was last season when he started out strong and then wilted near the finish. Before the 2015-16 all-star break he had 49 points in 47 games played and was a plus-24. Then after the break Kuznetsov notched 28 points with five goals and a plus-3 rating in 35 games played.

That’s in part why there’s been such focus from Kuznetsov on finishing strong this season – to avoid heading into the playoffs with less-than-optimal confidence.

“We need some of our big guys to regenerate a little bit,” Trotz said. “They’ve been good all year and have been pretty productive but down the stretch you need your top guys to be your top guys. They will be.”

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Though the Capitals may not be on the same pace as a year ago in the regular season, there’s a belief that they’re a bit stronger mentally this year because of the adversity they faced in the 2016 postseason and early on in 2016-17 as they tried to get going. They realized the mistakes they made and have said and they won’t let them happen again. Kuznetsov is part of this mindset and the hope is that both the forward and the team feed on it to not waste Washington’s real opportunity to take a shot at a Stanley Cup this season.

“He’s certainly a piece of the puzzle around here and we all are,” Capitals forward Justin Williams said. “Once everybody is going, the better off we’re going to be. It’s kind of like a clock. All our mechanisms need to be working perfectly.”

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Josh Cooper is an editor for Puck Daddy on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!