Evgeny Kuznetsov Should Stay on Top Line for Washington Capitals

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Evgeny Kuznetsov Should Stay on Top Line for Washington Capitals
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

Kuzya is coming! Kuzya is coming! 

No, that phrase was not shouted by Paul Revere on his Midnight Ride.

It was shouted by Washington Capitals fans all across Twitter last week, once it became obvious that prized prospect Evgeny Kuznetsov was indeed coming to Washington.

This eponymous exclamation may soon be shouted by the rest of the NHL, after witnessing Kuznetsov's first two regular season games, both against the Pittsburgh Penguins

In his first game, on March 10 at Verizon Center in DC, Kuznetsov recorded two shots on goal in 10:22 of ice time. He skated mostly on the fourth line, but also took two shifts on the top line and added 1:10 on the power play. Kuznetsov finished with an even rating, did not take any penalties and even blocked a shot. 

The very next night at CONSOL Energy Center in Pittsburgh, Kuznetsov earned much more ice time while logging several shifts on the first line. In fact, his 14:52 of total time on ice and 1:02 of power-play time on ice were both seventh-most among Capitals forwards. 

Kuznetsov registered three shots in the process, including a marvelous chance off a rebound that hit the post in front of a sprawling Marc-Andre Fleury in the second period. Kuznetsov drew a penalty late in the third period, but finished with a minus-one rating. He was also given credit for one hit. 

Pittsburgh caught a glimpse of Kuznetsov's ability. Soon, more teams around the league will see what Washington fans have known all along.

That is precisely why Kuznetsov's arrival was so highly anticipated and so loudly celebrated among Capitals fans that perhaps "it ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more." 

Okay, so it's not our nation's Independence Day, as described by founding father John Adams (courtesy of American University). 

But if you asked a Caps fan, they would say it's pretty damn close. 

You see, Kuznetsov is a special player. He fully deserves the reputation bestowed upon him. 

Adam Vingan of NHL.com recently touched on this:  

Ever since the Washington Capitals selected forward Evgeny Kuznetsov at No. 26 in the 2010 NHL Draft, the 21-year-old has taken on an almost mythical aura. As Kuznetsov dazzled in the KHL and at various World Junior Championships, highlights of his most sensational goals and performances were passed around Washington's fan base as if they were folk tales, his burgeoning legend growing exponentially.

Due in large part to these exploits, Kuznetsov's value as a prospect has not diminished in the eyes of talent evaluators. 

The 21-year-old native of Chelyabinsk, Russia was rated as the top overall prospect by Corey Pronman of Hockey Prospectus on his list of the top 50 NHL prospects published on Jan. 12, 2013. 

Nearly six months later on June 30, 2013, fellow Bleacher Report columnist Franklin Steele also ranked Kuznetsov first among the top 50 NHL prospects. Steele's list was published after the 2013 NHL draft and therefore included the newest crop of prospects. 

On Sept. 9, 2013, Corey Pronman of Hockey Prospectus again recognized Kuznetsov, this time placing him atop his list of Washington's top 10 prospects for 2013. 

Finally, on March 7, 2014 Matt Larkin of The Hockey News wrote that "it appears a player many call the best outside the NHL is about to make a living inside the NHL." 

The arrival in North America of a player of such magnitude is rather significant. So please excuse the Capitals fans who may have gotten a little bit excited at the prospect.

Or a lot bit excited. 

But these same Caps fans should not be excited to merely see Kuzya in the red, white and blue of their favorite team. Nor should they be satisfied to see him receive only “six minutes, 12 minutes” of ice time at first, as general manager George McPhee told The Washington Post before his debut. Head coach Adam Oates wanted everyone to keep in mind that "he’s a kid,” as he told Chuck Gormley of CSNWashington.com on March 7. "Let the kid ease in, " Oates added. 

True, this amount of ice time should have been expected for Kuznetsov. After all, he's a 21-year-old rookie that made his North American debut on a team full of veterans that is trying to make the playoffs. Oates can't rock the boat at a time like this. 

But the time for this kid to "ease in" has ended. In fact, Kuznetsov should stay on the top line for the Washington Capitals, and play there exclusively. 

If you think I'm crazy to make such an assertion, read this excerpt from a report about Kuznetsov published by NHL.com on March 8:  

He was also a top player in the Kontinental Hockey League, where Kuznetsov's accomplishments as an 18- and 19-year-old player in Russia's top league rivaled what past phenoms like Pavel Bure and Alex Ovechkin had accomplished. Kuznetsov totaled 36 goals and 72 points in the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons for Traktor Chelyabinsk. ... In two seasons at the same age, Ovechkin had 26 goals and 50 points for Dynamo Moscow and Bure had 46 goals (35 as a 19-year-old) and 70 points for CSKA Moscow. 

Ovechkin was able to translate his performance in the KHL directly to the NHL during his rookie season of 2005-06. Ovi scored 52 goals with 54 assists for 106 points in 81 games, earning himself the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. 

Obviously, Kuznetsov will not duplicate Ovechkin's 50-goal, 100-point season in 2013-14, since he joined the team with only 17 games remaining in their regular season schedule. By extension, Kuzya won't match Ovi's Calder Trophy either. 

But there is something else Kuznetsov can match from Ovechkin's rookie season. That year, Ovechkin averaged 21:37 in time-on-ice per game to lead all Capitals' forwards. 

Kuznetsov is capable of logging those types of minutes. Take a look at his statistics from his last three regular seasons in the KHL along with two postseasons, paying close attention to his ice time: 

Evgeny Kuznetsov's KHL Stats from Last 3 Seasons
SEASON GP G A P +/- PIM PPG GWG S FO% TOI/G
2011-12 Regular 49 13 22 41 +5 30 7 9 184 42.1 18:59
2011-12 Playoffs 12 7 2 9 +3 10 3 2 45 26.3 21:48
2012-13 Regular 51 19 25 44 -1 42 2 2 224 37.3 20:38
2012-13 Playoffs 25 5 6 11 -5 28 3 0 82 25.6 20:05
2013-14 Regular 31 8 13 21 -10 12 5 1 92 38.2 19:02

en.KHL.ru

Of course, the only way Kuznetsov can play those types of minutes in the NHL is if he plays on the Capitals' top line. 

Another glance at this statistical data reveals why Kuznetsov would be a good fit on the top line, in addition to his possessing the skills and ability to earn that spot. It's important to note that if Kuznetsov were to play on the top line, he would continue to play left wing, centered by Nicklas Backstrom with Alex Ovechkin on the right wing. This way, Kuznetsov would not have to play center. Which is a good thing. 

Simply put, Kuznetsov is horrible at faceoffs. For his entire KHL regular season career of 210 games, Kuznetsov won only 203 of 528 draws for a ghastly win percentage of 38.4. In 41 career playoff games he was even worse, winning only 16 of 62 draws (25.8 percent). 

The last thing the Capitals need is another center who can't win a faceoff to save his life. Washington is currently 22nd in the NHL in faceoff win percentage at 48.9 percent. Of the ten Capitals with at least 100 total faceoffs, only four have a faceoff win percentage greater than 50 percent. What's worse, one of these four players is injured (Mikhail Grabovski), one is currently in the AHL (Michael Latta) and one isn't even a center (Troy Brouwer). 

When should Evgeny Kuznetsov permanently move to Capitals' top line?

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Kuznetsov would do nothing to help the Caps with this vital aspect of the game. Therefore, he should be pushed to the wing. This way, Oates can allow him to "ease in" to the action by not having to worry about faceoffs

Beyond faceoffs, Kuznetsov should play on the first line for two additional reasons. 

First of all, there's the issue of familiarity. Kuznetsov has never played in the NHL, AHL or OHL, and therefore has no connection to the majority of players on the Capitals, outside of Capitals' rookie camp in 2010. 

The only two Capitals with whom he does have a prior connection are Ovechkin and Dmitry Orlov, who also happen to be the two other Russian-born players on the team. According to Thomas Boswell of The Washington PostKuznetsov said “I talk to [Dmitry] Orlov and Ovi like every day all year . . . like little joke. Every day they say, ‘Come, we need you.’"

The connection with prospective linemate Ovechkin is even stronger than that. Ovechkin has offered to open his home to Kuznetsov while he grows accustomed to his surroundings. Ovechkin explained his reasoning to Katie Carrera of The Washington Post, saying "I’ve been in this situation. I know how tough it is for first year guy come to new league with new guys." The Capitals' captain added that the "most important thing is he’s going to feel comfortable, his wife is going to feel comfortable." 

Second of all, there is the issue of language. Ovechkin told Katie Carrera that Kuznetsov "knows a little bit [of English] but not a lot. I’m going to help him with that." Thomas Boswell wrote that Kuznetsov's English is actually in pretty good shape, saying that his "fluency is several years ahead of Ovechkin’s at 21." 

But it still needs work, as Adam Oates related to Chuck Gormley of CSNWashington.com

Capitals coach Adam Oates said he spent an hour talking with Kuznetsov on Monday and 10 minutes into the conversation Kuznetsov stopped him and asked what he meant by 'D to D.' “I said, ‘OK, well you could have told me nine minutes ago,’” Oates said with a laugh. “But we got through it.”

There is one final reason why Kuznetsov should play on the top line, and it is best explained by a comparison with the Capitals' other prized rookie, Tom Wilson.

The 6' 4", 210-pound power forward is like an 18-wheeler. He must start slow, as evidenced by his continued presence on the fourth line. But once he gets rolling he will gain momentum and soon be difficult to stop. 

Kuznetsov, on the other hand, is like a Lamborghini. Idling on the fourth line is bad for his racecar engine. Plus, all those starts and stops might burn out his clutch. He needs to get out on the open road that appears when playing on the top line so he can use all six gears and show what he can really do. 

Not if but rather when Kuznetsov permanently joins fellow first-round draft picks Ovechkin and Backstrom on the first line, the trio would inspire a new variation on the classic "Vodka Line"

  • One part Russian Vodka (Ovechkin). 
  • One part Swedish Vodka (Backstrom). 
  • One part Absinthe (Kuznetsov). 

These three could concoct a dizzying array of brain-warping passes and mind-boggling shots that may actually drive opposing defenses insane. 

I am drunk with anticipation. 

 

Note: All NHL statistics updated through March 11 courtesy of NHL.com unless noted otherwise. 

Note: All KHL statistics updated through March 4 courtesy of en.KHL.ru unless noted otherwise. 

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