After a slow start, Evgeny Kuznetsov is starting to play like a superstar again

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J.J. Regan
·3 min read
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Kuznetsov bounces back from season start to superstar once again originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

With the complications of Covid and a new coach, Evgeny Kuznetsov had a slow start to the season, but one thing is clear as of late: Kuznetsov is getting comfortable within head coach Peter Laviolette's new system and is starting to look more and more like the superstar he showed he could be back in 2018.

To start the season Kuznetsov played in just four games before he was added to the NHL's Covid protocol list in January and went almost a full month between games. When he was on the ice, he was inconsistent at best.

"I think from the start of the season, everybody trying to understand each other and what we're trying to do as a group," Laviolette said, "His start got delayed when he got put into protocol and when he came out, I think that there's a little bit of a catchup period there."

Looking back on it now, Kuznetsov says having to stay off the ice while battling COVID-19 greatly affected his game.

"Unfortunately I'm not a gene bank, so I need to skate a lot," Kuznetsov said.

After a few weeks back, however, Kuznetsov found it hard to gain Laviolette's trust and spoke to the coach about an increased role.

Laviolette's message? Kuznetsov would have to earn it.

"The game has to match the request and what players want," Laviolette said. "Everybody wants to play in the last five minutes and so the game has to match that I'm seeing on the ice. It was a pretty honest conversation. He wants to be trusted, he wants that responsibility and I was looking for more from his game. I was looking for more drive, more attack, more puck possession. I was looking for him to be a difference-maker. When those things happen, then I think the responsibility comes with it."

In his first 14 games of the season, Kuznetsov had only two goals and four assists. Since March 9, however, in just 10 games, Kuznetsov has four goals (tied for second on the team behind Alex Ovechkin), eight assists (tied for first with Justin Schultz) and 12 points (tied for first with Ovechkin).

"I think I start [to] understand more what the coach wants from me," Kuznetsov said.

As Kuznetsov's production has gone up, so has his usage. His ice time per game has increased almost a full minute from 16:23 in those first 14 games to 17:22.

"Recently, for me what I notice is his skating," Laviolette said. "He's attacking the game, he has a high skill level so for me, it's about the speed and the skating that pushes things where he becomes hard to play against, he becomes hard to defend. It's been really noticeable. I think he's probably been our most noticeable player in the last three to five games."

There were several players who played key roles in Washington's Cup run in 2018, but with 32 points in 24 games, Kuznetsov was one of the team's most important players. The Caps likely cannot make a similar run without him playing at his full potential. The progress he has shown in the past month under Laviolette is a step in the right direction for both the player and the team.

"Coach trust me more right now and he give me some opportunities that I've been asking for that, and he give me chances," Kuznetsov said. "So far I hope that I do everything he wants for me. Every time if you're going to play better every day coach will give you more time, for sure and I thank [him] for that."