“That was a bad, bad day and bad finish over there, right? So it’s kind of, [Coach Spencer Carbery] was trying to help me, but eventually, it was a bad result,” Kuznetsov said Wednesday. “I love him so much, and he’s trying to help me, trying to help the team. But, unfortunately, the result wasn’t there. I feel like it’s on me, too, a lot.”
Kuznetsov has just four goals and five assists for nine points in 19 games. The Capitals have scored the fewest goals in the league, with 50 in 22 games, and though they have found ways to win with narrow margins, they need the offense to pick up. Kuznetsov, a play-driving center who can create space for his teammates and make high-level plays in the offensive zone when he’s at his best, is a key element of that.
“I feel like we’ve been missing those 15, 20 points by me, and that’s 20 goals,” Kuznetsov said. “If we could score those 20 goals, we’d probably be top 10 in the league in terms to goal scoring, so that’s what we’re missing. And I understand that. … I want to succeed here. I want my team to celebrate every game.”
“I can feel that he really wants to do well and play well and be a key contributor and play at the level that he has shown he’s capable of in the past, as an elite-level player in this league,” Carbery said Sunday, the day before Kuznetsov sat out. “It hasn’t happened this year. He’s been just struggling. … He just hasn’t played at the level that he expects and has shown in the past.”
Carbery, who had hoped that taking Kuznetsov out of his routine for a day would make him take a step back and consider his process on the ice, had called the scratch a “mental reset” for the center. Far too many of Kuznetsov’s typically highlight-reel plays have resulted in turnovers, and Carbery sought something different to produce a different result.
The challenge in reigniting a skilled player such as Kuznetsov lies in the fact that the things he does on the ice are difficult and require both skill and confidence to pull off. When his confidence drops and his execution starts to disappear, it isn’t as simple as, for example, telling a bottom-six forward to get in on the forecheck and skate hard.
“Any role in the National Hockey League is hard. But some roles come with, ‘You just need to do A, B and C, and when you’re struggling, you just go back to A, B, and C,’ ” Carbery said. “And you just do it. You usually can get out of a funk. It’s harder for your elite skill players in this league to just say, like, ‘Just go out and make plays.’ ”
Kuznetsov can be mercurial, and it’s no secret that he clashed with former coach Peter Laviolette and his dump-and-chase style of play. But Carbery believes in what Kuznetsov can bring to the table with the puck on his stick, as a driver of controlled zone entries and a player who can keep plays alive on the offensive end.
“I genuinely value the things he does on the ice,” Carbery said during the preseason. “He’s a very unique player, and there’s a lot of things inside of his game that maybe some coaches — or I shouldn’t even say coaches; hockey people — would go, like, ‘What is he doing there?’ And there’s a lot of moments that I think that, too. But you have to appreciate that if you let him do that stuff, you’re going to get some of this. And this stuff can change a game.”
That belief in Kuznetsov’s ability makes it all the more frustrating for player and coach that things haven’t clicked.
“It’s not easy to watch the game or be not with the team or kind of step away for one day and unfortunately not able to help the team,” Kuznetsov said. “Especially in that game, it was a tough first period. I felt bad because I felt like I had to be there and had to help the team better in lot of — in every area.”
Even as he expressed his frustration with being scratched — quipping at one point that he has wanted to “kill someone since yesterday, in a good way, you know?” — Kuznetsov emphasized several times that he loves and trusts Carbery.
“I understand what he was saying,” Kuznetsov said. “At that point, it’s hard to accept, but like I said, I trust him so much. I want to believe in him, and he wants believe in me, so I feel like we have a great relationship. I kind of understand that I need to be better.”
Kuznetsov is set to return to the lineup when the Capitals host the Dallas Stars on Thursday. He was active and engaged during Wednesday’s practice, his first time back on the ice after Washington had a day off Tuesday, and Carbery expects to see more of the same when Kuznetsov returns to game action.
“I know Kuz didn’t necessarily agree with the decision, which he’s completely entitled to, and I understand that from his perspective,” Carbery said. “But my objective is hopefully him sitting brings a better player and brings the version that we’ve all seen and know he’s capable of being and, frankly, what we need as a team. We need that caliber of player of what he’s capable of doing, and that’s what we’re hoping we see.”