What to Make of Evgeny Kuznetsov's Start to the Season

Stats show interesting story to Evgeny Kuznetsov’s start originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

The Capitals’ win over the Bruins on Wednesday was, by many measures, their most impressive of the season. 

They played stellar defensively, controlled possession and knocked off one of the NHL’s best teams, on the road, with just one goal in 65 minutes of hockey. 

Held off the scoresheet, though, was Evgeny Kuznetsov, the Capitals’ center that has played an interesting role so far this season when he’s been available. Through 12 games, he’s tallied just six points, which is (through a small sample size) on pace for his lowest points-per-game total as a Capital. 

But like the Capitals as a team, Kuznetsov’s play has shown underlying metrics that showcase a certain level of improvement on an individual level, and an interesting look at how the Capitals are deploying their forward lines as Kuznetsov still deals with the rocky start to the 2021 season.

“A guy like (Nicklas) Backstrom has played in every game, in every practice, been in every meeting,” coach Peter Laviolette said Friday. “I think there’s a learning curve that goes with that. For a guy like Kuzy, he’s been quarantined a bit, he’s been injured for a bit, so we went through a process there. It was more just based on situations that he’s been dealt and he’s had to deal with at the beginning of the year than anything else.”

Before Friday's game against the Bruins, Kuznetsov has played in just 12 of the team’s 22 games this year. He’s been out with COVID-19 and an injury and paired with the transition to a new system under Laviolette, it hasn’t been easy for Kuznetsov to get his legs under him.

“If you look back to where we were at game number seven and then to where we are now and how we are playing on the ice, I think the players go through the same things,” Laviolette said Wednesday. “So I am guessing that there is still room for him to grow inside of times that he’s missed.”

The way Kuznetsov has been used, however, has been in a role that’s been supremely successful for the Capitals in how they’ve started the season.

Through 12 games, he’s posted an offensive zone faceoff percentage of 80.36 at five-on-five, the highest percentage on the team and, by more than 20 percent, the highest percentage of his career according to Natural Stat Trick. Only Alex Ovechkin (73.20 percent) is within 14 percentage points of Kuznetsov’s zone starts.

Of players that have played at least 50 minutes of five-on-five hockey this season, Kuznetsov ranks first in the NHL, with Ovechkin in fourth, in offensive zone faceoff percentage.

Meaning, the Capitals are deploying Kuznetsov’s lines in a way that is favorable to offense more than they ever have before in his career. And the results have been stellar.

Kuznetsov is second on the team in Corsi-For percentage (56.55), best in shot-on-net percentage (57.05), best in goals percentage (77.78), best in expected goals (59.83) and best in high-danger chances (59.68), essentially showcasing that strictly in terms of creating chances offensively and preventing chances defensively, Kuznetsov has been perhaps the Capitals’ best forward.

Despite a higher than average PDO (104.88), which combines a player’s on-ice shooting and save percentage, it’s reasonable to assume Kuznetsov will continue to see strong metrics if the lines he’s on continue to control the puck in the important areas of the ice.

His favorable deployments and usage by Laviolette don’t necessarily guarantee offensive production, either. Of the three non-Capitals with the highest offensive zone start percentages in the league, two (Jack Roslovic and Robert Bortuzzo) have Corsi-For percentages of below 50 percent. Just one player in the top 35 (Alexander Radulov) has a better expected goals percentage than Kuznetsov. 

His possession metrics have been remarkably strong, and while he’s certainly seen a benefit to higher-leverage usage by Laviolette, he’s producing more offense than most players are in similar situations. And that certainly hasn’t always been the case. 

Kuznetsov hasn’t been rewarded on the scoresheet, though, with just two goals and four assists to start the year. But the arrow is still pointed upward on both ends of the ice.

He is shooting just 8.3 percent, which would be the lowest percentage of his career. Ovechkin, his current linemate, is shooting 10.3 percent, which would be the second-lowest percentage of his career. If Kuznetsov’s line continues to carry play, the goals should certainly come in bunches as the year moves along.

He’s also just now getting more help on his faceoffs, something he said he hasn’t had coached specifically to him before as JJ Regan wrote earlier this week. The best percentage of his career was in the 2015-16 season, when he was 47.8 percent off the draw.

Kuznetsov hasn't had the easiest start to the season, but the way he's been used by Laviolette, and what his lines have done in those situations, have worked out extremely well for the Capitals.

The Capitals are, clearly, led by Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. But if they want to make a deep run in the playoffs, Kuznetsov will have to be a force on the ice like he was in the 2018 playoffs. And so far, he’s showing signs he’ll be able to do that once again.

Tune in to watch the Caps take on the Bruins Friday night. Coverage starts at 6 on NBC Sports Washington.

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