Red’s definitely his color. (Photo credit: Harry How)
Back on January 6, 2011, Team Russia made the biggest comeback in World Junior Championship history, scoring five unanswered third period goals against Canada to win the gold medal. Then-18-year-old Caps prospect Evgeny Kuznetsov centered the team’s first line and led the charge, assisting on three of the team’s goals.
Kuznetsov’s assist on Vladimir Tarasenko’s game-tying goal made him a hero in Russia and known to hockey fans worldwide. The play was was a perfect example of how he might play center in the NHL. Kuznetsov back-checked a Canadian player and stole the puck. After some diligent forechecking, he found Vladimir Tarasenko in the slot with an uncanny no-look pass.
That’s why George McPhee drafted Chelyabinsk’s favorite son as a center: he has great vision, above-average stick-handling, and is a great skater. Kuznetsov, one of the fastest players in the KHL, can also play defense and has a passion for the subject off-the-ice as well, successfully defending a thesis on penalty killing a few weeks ago. Seriously. Simply put, Kuznetsov has all the intangibles to play the game’s most demanding and important position besides goalie.
But he rarely plays center for his KHL team, Traktor Chelyabinsk. Why?
Over the last two seasons, Traktor head coach Valery Belousov has paired Kuznetsov with a 35-year-old former Capital, center Jan Bulis. Part of the reasoning was to put the team’s most talented offensive player with a veteran who can both mentor him and help with defensive responsibilities. In Russia, with the wider ice surface, Kuznetsov’s speed is something that forces consideration from opposing defensemen. The more he pushes the pace up ice, the more space he creates for his teammates. It’s a tactic that works.
Another reason why Kuznetsov plays wing is because Traktor is deep at center. Petri Kontiola plays the position on the team’s second line. The crafty playmaker is competent at both ends of the ice. In 2007-08, Kontiola got his only shot in the NHL, scoring five points in 12 games for the Blackhawks. He was then sent down, and a season later he returned to Europe where he’s scored 138 points in 205 games.
Finally — and here’s the bad news for Caps fans– Evgeny Kuznetsov is bad at face-offs. Like really bad. Think Shaquille O’Neal on the free-throw line or Michael Jordan in the batter’s box. That’s Kuznetsov on the face-off dot currently.
In 2010-11, Kuznetsov took 80 faceoffs. He won 29. For those of you counting at home, that’s a sub-Ribeiro-ian 36.3% winning percentage. The next season, Kuznetsov got 159 opportunities and won 42.1%. This season, Kuzya participated in 241 face-offs and won 37.3%.
In the playoffs, where winning face-offs becomes crazy important, Kuznetsov did even worse, sporting a career 25.8%. Look at these stats. This is why Belousov had Bulis, a career 51.9% face-off winner, take nearly 1000 this season.
Plain and simple: the 198-pound Kuznetsov is a liability on the dot — even in a league below the NHL.
In March, George McPhee told the gathered media that Kuznetsov will play center when he arrives. “He was a terrific center as a junior [player],” McPhee said. “If a guy can show you he can play center, you try him at center. I think he’ll be a pretty dynamic, play-making center.”
McPhee continued, “It’s okay to have a lot of centers because you can move them to wing if it’s necessary. It’s a nice situation. We have Brooks Laich and Marcus Johansson — you can always move people to the wing. You can’t move them from wing to center if they don’t know how to play center.”
Johansson is a great example of a guy who got moved to wing because of his face-off issues. His rookie year, he won 40.5% and in 2011-12 he won 43.2%. This season, the experiment ended, and Johansson’s play went to the next level.
It’s smart for the Capitals to proclaim that they see Kuznetsov as their long-term solution for second line center. It’s a position they’ve had trouble filling since long before Mike Ribeiro, and Kuznetsov’s above-average play-making ability might makes him a good fit there.
The good news is that winning face-offs is a skill that can be learned too — especially from a hall-of-fame head coach who played the position for 19 years. And winning faceoffs may be the least important skill for a center to actually have. This past season, Mike Ribeiro won just 44.8% of his face-offs and was especially bad in the beginning of the season. Oates can also protect Kuznetsov by letting players like Brooks Laich and Jay Beagle take important draws at the end of games. Good coaching can hide these flaws.
Regardless of what position Kuznetsov ends up playing for the Caps, the good news is that he has committed to playing in the NHL. “He really wants to play [here],” McPhee said. “That’s the next challenge for him.”
We just all need to keep our expectations in check. Kuznetsov has a bunch of talent, but he also has a lot to learn.
Additional reporting by Fedor Fedin.