The 2018 Kuznetsov was engaging, dynamic and ran smoothly. He was arguably one of the best players in the NHL and certainly one of the best this postseason. He helped the capitals defeat their playoff demons with a brilliant run.
And he hasn’t been consistent since then. Washington, which will visit Pittsburgh on Sunday lunchtime, will need this 2018 version of the Russian star to get another shot at the Stanley Cup this season.
“If he can play the way he can, it only increases the overall level of our team,” said Brian MacLellan, general manager of Capitals. “… He is the key for us. When it’s on, we’re a different team. We are a deeper team. We can score, we have lines that can score and we are difficult to defend. It’s hard to play against us when he’s at the highest level. Sometimes he’s in and out, but when he’s at that level we’re a good team. We are a really good team. “
Kuznetsov had an inconsistent 2018/19 season with 21 goals and 51 assists in 76 games. MacLellan has described his game as “frustrating” this season.
In May 2019, he tested positive for cocaine, which is not a prohibited substance in the NHL, and represented the Russian national team at the World Championships. Kuznetsov was banned for inappropriate behavior and missed the first three games of the Capitals season.
He finished with 19 goals and 33 assists in 63 regular season games, and added three goals and two assists in the postseason. Washington lost in the first round and fell in five games against the New York Islanders.
“Kuzy is one of our guides,” said captain Alex Ovechkin on Thursday. “He knows how good he can be. … If he plays the same level that we know how to play, he will help us. “
“His skills are really good,” said Laviolette.
The players have a clean, laviolet table focused on what happened under his watch in Washington.
“The story follows you a little,” said Laviolette. “… I would like to believe that I’ve never cheated on a player. I haven’t gone in a direction where a new team should be on guard. But … there is still a lot to do. “
Kuznetsov praised Laviolette’s system and the way he carried around on the team during training camp. The 28-year-old is one of the first voices you can hear on the ice in the Capitals practice facility and while skating in the morning. He speaks loudly in Russian to his compatriots or comments on someone’s shot during the exercises.
Kuznetsov skated with Tom Wilson and Jakub Vrana in the first two games of the season, a move from his usual place alongside Ovechkin and Wilson at the top. Laviolette said Kuznetsov did nothing wrong to initiate the move. The lines were just a “starting point” and the change worked. The top line of Ovechkin, TJ Oshie and Nicklas Backstrom scored two goals and five assists in their 6-4 win on Thursday. Wilson had a goal and an assist in Friday’s 2-1 win over the Sabers, and Vrana scored too.
Wilson said Thursday that he likes to skate with Kuznetsov because of his playing skills. It’s Wilson’s job to be frank, he said, and Kuznetsov always knows how to find him.
“If he plays his game and plays well, he’s probably a top five striker in the league,” said Wilson. “… The consistency is enormous. When he’s constant night after night, he drives our team and helps us. He’s so talented and great fun to play with. “