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Evgeny Kuznetsov is fueled by joy, not ambition

October 11, 2018

Washington Capitals fans’ second-favorite Russian walked to a corner of the locker room on Wednesday night and greeted a scrum of reporters waiting for him. Wearing his gray Capitals quarter-zip, Evgeny Kuznetsov got into position and began to field questions. As usual, he smiled, blushed, chuckled and glanced at the floor throughout the conversation.

Kuznetsov was responsible for Washingtons first four goals a power-play score followed by three straight primary assists in a 5-2 win Wednesday over the Vegas Golden Knights. It was Kuznetsovs sixth career game with four or more points. Right away, he downplayed the importance of personal statistics.

“It doesn’t matter how many points I get. It’s just about get those team points early in the season,” Kuznetsov said. “For us, we talk about having a good start and these points will be huge end of the year. About personal game, (I’m) always gonna get points if everyone gonna play right.”

If Kuznetsov didn’t want to talk about himself, he couldn’t have been thrilled about where the conversation turned next.

On the other end of the room, T.J. Oshie had just gotten done saying that Kuznetsov is criminally underappreciated, and “up there with, all-around, the top five players in the league.”

“I don’t know, he just doesn’t get the recognition for some reason,” Oshie said. “But you come watch a game, there’s certain players that get people out of their seats and it’s a joy to watch. I’m probably biased because I play with him, but when you get to see what he’s able to do night in and night out I haven’t seen a guy that can play with the puck like he can.”

Kuznetsov was told about Oshie and asked whether he thinks about becoming the best player in the NHL. In typical Kuznetsov fashion, he laughed.

“No, no. I don’t give a (expletive) about that,” he said. “To be MVP, you have to work hard 365 (days) in a year, but I’m not ready for that.”

Kuznetsov makes plenty of jokes. People who know him enjoy that part of his personality. But this came across more as humility than humor. He said it again and again: “I don’t want to stay focused 365. That’s the problem. To be the best player in this league, you have to focus 365. It’s not easy. Some players will understand what I mean. But for me, it’s just hard.”

It’s far more common in sports to find players who declare they’re the best, or that they can become the best, than to find a rising star who doesn’t care to be considered the league MVP.

To be fair, maybe Oshie’s bias was indeed showing. In NHL Network’s preseason series ranking the top 50 players in the league, the top five included Alex Ovechkin (No. 5), Edmonton center Connor McDavid, Pittsburgh centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and Tampa Bay winger Nikita Kucherov. Kuznetsov came in at No. 27 and the 12th-ranked center.

If someone told Kuznetsov that, he likely would say he doesn’t give an expletive whether he’s 27th or first. He used a surprising analogy to explain what was more important to him.

“I was watching a movie a few days ago about the Brazilian soccer players,” he said. “For them, futbol, the soccer game, that’s the biggest day in their year. They have fun, they enjoy, they dance, they smile every time. That’s what I’m trying to do, too. I try to have fun and I try to enjoy every second on the ice.

“You never know when you’re gonna be retired, right?”

Kuznetsov is 26, so barring a disastrous injury, retirement is not on his horizon given the level of skill he’s ascending toward. Four months after recording a series-high eight points (one goal, seven assists) in the Stanley Cup Final, he has already added more to his game. General manager Brian MacLellan thought Kuznetsov could be useful on the penalty kill; the center has played PK minutes in each of the team’s first three games this year.

Coach Todd Reirden singled out a moment against Vegas when Kuznetsov won a faceoff on his off side with the team shorthanded a high-pressure situation that ultimately led to a Capitals goal after the penalty ended.

“He’s someone that I just enjoy talking to on a number of different things, whether it’s different trends he sees in the game, different plays that can work,” Reirden said. “He’s an extremely intelligent guy as well. You can talk to him about just about anything and he’s going to have an opinion on it and it’s an educated opinion.”

Ovechkin agreed with Oshie that Kuznetsov can be among the best in the sport.

“Sometimes he try to make crazy pass,” Ovechkin said. “You think, ‘What’s he doing?’ But he have his own mind.”

Those risky maneuvers and passes are where Kuznetsov finds a lot of his joy, he said.

“But to be MVP in this league, you have to play even better,” he reiterated. “You have to go next level. It’s not easy. More important, you have to stay focused 365, but that’s not my style.”

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