Ben Little The Hockey Writers
Capitals Could Get More From Kuznetsov as a Winger
For as long as he has been a member of the Washington Capitals, Evgeny Kuznetsov has been a centre. He started out in the bottom six and played his way up to the first line of the team when they won their first Stanley Cup in franchise history back in 2018. In that Cup run, he led the team and the playoffs with 32 points in 24 games.
Clearly, he has been effective at doing what he’s doing. However, over the last few seasons, the Russian-native has not played up to that standard he set in 2018. It leads to an important question. Would Kuznetsov prove more valuable as a winger?
The Capitals have had trouble with faceoffs since they lost Jay Beagle to free agency in 2018. Lars Eller had the best faceoff percentage (FO%) on the Capitals this past season with a 51.9%, which was 46th in the league amongst centremen who took more than 600 draws. Beagle had a 59.1% with the Vancouver Canucks, which was third-best in the NHL.
It is and has been no secret that Kuznetsov is not good inside the dot. It should also be common knowledge that centremen should be somewhat decent at faceoffs. This past season, he had a FO% of 43.3%. That percentage puts him at a tie for 69th-best in the league (with 47 of the players involved in ties above him, technically making him 97th-best). This is the second-lowest FO% of his career, excluding his 17-game season in 2013-14. Throughout the entirety of his NHL career, Kuznetsov has an average FO% of 43.7%.
Related: Cup-Winning Capitals: Where Are They Now?
As a top-line centreman in the NHL, you are expected to take a lot of draws throughout the season. With Kuznetsov only winning 43.3% of his draws, you have to wonder if there are better options available because he is a flat-out liability in the dot.
If Kuznetsov were moved to the wing, he would only need to worry about taking the occasional draw when his centreman is kicked out of the face-off dot. This is when having a sub-50 FO% is okay and almost expected. However, he should not be allowed to take draws regularly if it is, and has been clear for a long time that he is no good at it.
Perhaps this has to do with the fact that Kuznetsov primarily played on the wing in the KHL, which is all the more reason to play him on wing in the NHL.
When it comes to critiquing players on their defensive abilities, I —and I am sure many others — notice what a forward does on offense as opposed to defense unless it is spectacular. However, even I know that Kuznetsov’s capabilities in his own zone are not where they need to be at the first-line centreman role.
Although I am no analytical wizard, let’s take a look at some of Kuznetsov’s advanced statistics.
One stat that people love to look at when addressing someone’s defensive shortcomings is Corsi-For Percentage (CF%). Kuznetsov’s CF% at even strength this past season was 46.9%. Like most stats that involve a percentage, having below a 50% is not great at all. It means the Capitals do not possess the puck as much when Kuznetsov is on the ice.
Kuznetsov also had a Shots-For Percentage of 45.22, which means that his team allowed more shots than they took when he was on the ice. Finally, he had a High-Danger-Chances-For Percentage of 46.13, which is similar to the previous stat, except that the opposing teams had more high-danger chances when Kuznetsov was on the ice than his team did.
Now, returning to basic stats, Kuznetsov only had 21 takeaways this past season. Compare that to the centre/player who had the most in takeaways in the league, Auston Matthews, who had 75. He is followed by New York Islander, Mathew Barzal with 70. As a centreman, Kuznetsov should be constantly attacking players in his own zone and engaging in battles in his corners like these guys are. The fact that he only had 21 takeaways makes it appear that he was doing neither of these things very often.
Kuznetsov’s defensive imperfections were on display in the Capitals’ round-robin game against the Philadelphia Flyers when he blew his coverage in his own zone, which directly resulted in two Flyers’ goals and led to him being benched for the last half of the third period.
If the Capitals moved Kuznetsov to the wing, it will give him fewer responsibilities in his own zone and allow him to keep his focus on offense where it belongs seeing as how he is one of the most offensively gifted players in the NHL.
The Problems This Creates
However, just moving him to the wing is much easier said than done.
In this instance, it is tough to move a player in the top six to a different position without altering the entire makeup of the forward lines. This point is prevalent especially for the Capitals who have some extremely skilled guys in their upper units.
If the Capitals moved Kuznetsov to the wing tomorrow (provided Nicklas Backstrom is healthy), the top two lines would have to be shuffled pretty aggressively because there would need to be a replacement at centre. Right now, Kuznetsov’s wingers are Tom Wilson and Jakub Vrana and neither of them can fill in at second-line centre. An option is to promote Lars Eller to second-line centre, but then they have to fill in the third-line centre position with either Travis Boyd or Connor McMichael, with the latter having never played an NHL game before.
That might work for the postseason, but it isn’t a definite, long-term solution because both players are still unproven at the NHL level.
Not to mention, it would mean someone would be demoted to the bottom six and that someone would likely be T.J. Oshie. He is one of the most important players on the team — more so during playoffs — so that wouldn’t work in the postseason. As for next season? At that point you can’t be paying a third liner over $5 million per season, so then it would become an issue of trying to trade him and his contract and that’s an entire other subject. This would also mean someone would have to be removed from the lineup during the playoffs, which seems unlikely.
They could look for a second-line centre in the offseason, but they could also try Oshie at centre with Kuznetsov at wing. Oshie already plays a pretty good two-way game, but playing centre requires more than being a good back-checker. In order for him to have success as a centreman, the coaches will need to work with him to help him hone in on the finer details of the position.
Oshie is also elite when it comes to board battles and puck battles because he is so strong on his stick. He finished the season with 39 takeaways — it is safe to assume that number could increase by a lot if he is helping out his defenders in the corners every shift.
Oshie usually takes the faceoffs on the right-hand side of the ice because it is his strong side. He took a surprising amount of draws this past season at 238. How many did he win? 119. This means he also lost 119, making his FO% a perfect 50%. He is already better in the dot than Kuznetsov. However, the majority of them were taken on the right side of the ice. Oshie would need to learn how to take draws on his weaker side to be more effective.
Related: Top 10 Washington Capitals Centers
The Capitals also wouldn’t need to go out and spend more money in free agency if Oshie adapted to centre, which is a huge bonus for a team who is in a tight-cap situation to say the least.
An Example of This Working
This has worked with other players in a similar position. During the 2017-18 season, the Philadelphia Flyers put Claude Giroux on the wing and promoted Sean Couturier to first-line centre. That season, Giroux put up a career-high 102 points while Couturier also put up a career-high with 76 points. Couturier matched those numbers for the next season as well.
Giroux went over to the wing and was able to blossom there while it allowed for their best defensive forward to earn top-line minutes with top-tier players. Of course, Couturier was already a center before the move, but this more so shows how Giroux was able to excel offensively when placed on the wing the way Kuznetsov could.
Although there are some obstacles that lie in the way of making this idea a reality, I feel they are worth trudging through. If Kuznetsov could move to the wing with fewer defensive responsibilities, he could blossom even more so offensively than he already has. A Kuznetsov with only offense to worry about would leave the rest of the league in a lot of trouble.
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