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Capitals set to entrust Kuznetsov with enhanced role

by Dan Rosen / NHL.com

WASHINGTON -- Center Evgeny Kuznetsov is going to have to do his best Nicklas Backstrom impersonation to help the Washington Capitals start off strong this season.

Backstrom, the Capitals' longtime No. 1 center, is expected to miss at least a handful of games in October while he continues to recover from hip surgery he had in May. That means Kuznetsov is expected to be Washington's new No. 1 center for the time being, likely playing between Alex Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie.

It's quite a different opportunity for Kuznetsov and expectation placed on him from coach Barry Trotz than at this point last year, when he was still trying to adjust to the North American lifestyle while attempting to re-learn how to play center under the tutelage of a coach he had never played for before and in a system that was brand new to him.

Kuznetsov entered last season with 17 games and nine points in his NHL career. He enters this season with 97 games and 46 points.

"Where he finished, that's where he should start," Trotz said. "Does he have the ability to grow his game? Yeah, still. But he needs to be where he left off. If he gets to where he left off then we'll be in pretty good shape."

Kuznetsov was the Capitals' No. 2 center and a contributing offensive force by the end of last season. He had five goals and seven points in 14 Stanley Cup Playoff games after scoring five goals and 13 points in the final 17 regular-season games.

Kuznetsov feels he can do better. The Capitals need him to.

"I have to go as high as I can, more goals, more assists," Kuznetsov said. "I know what coach wants from me. I feel like I'm young but I have to play like I'm here five or six years. Coach gives me the time, and I have to do the right things on the ice."

Trotz gave Kuznetsov a little bit of tough love last season, scratching him twice and talking to him on occasion, sometimes via text message, to let him know about the things he could and should do better. Trotz would also call Kuznetsov into his office to show him video clips of what he did right as positive reinforcement.

Trotz said he did all that in order to establish mutual trust between himself and Kuznetsov. It paid off in the second half of the season, which is why Trotz is entrusting Kuznetsov to handle Backstrom's workload, at even strength and on the first power-play unit, at the start of this season.

"This opportunity, it's a big chance for me to show the coach and the whole team that it's not only a half year that I played good," Kuznetsov said. "I have to play good right away. I understand this and I believe I'll do it."

The long-term goal is for Kuznetsov to be Backstrom's equal, or as close to it as he can become, so the Capitals can have a one-two punch down the middle they haven't had on a consistent basis in the Ovechkin era, which is entering its 11th season.

The No. 2 center position has been the Capitals' black hole for several years. Sergei Fedorov filled it briefly, as did Mike Ribeiro, but there have also been too many experiments with players in that position to mention.

"That's all everybody talks about around town," Capitals defenseman John Carlson said. "That's a big hole to fill for our team."

Kuznetsov isn't considered an experiment or someone the Capitals hope can fill the black hole; he's considered the answer. He proved it in the second half of last season. That should only be the start.

"He's another deadly threat," Carlson said. "He brings an element of surprise to the other team. He kind of sneaks up on you and he's fast, physical, and I don't think guys really know that about him. I think that brings out his skill a little more."

Trotz said he started planning for Kuznetsov's expected rise to prominence last season. He would occasionally split up Backstrom and Ovechkin in an attempt to make his top six players appear to be interchangeable, even if there obviously is no one on the Capitals roster that can do what Ovechkin and Backstrom are capable of doing.

"We're trying to get to that point where if you're not able to match up it can be a big advantage for us," Trotz said.

They're still trying to get there, only now with the additions of Oshie and Justin Williams. Kuznetsov has a chance early this season to speed up the process on his end. He might as well be wearing No. 19 instead of No. 92.

"He's still young, still learning, and I'm pretty sure in the future he's going to be a top guy in the League, but he has to still work on his skill and his size," Ovechkin said of Kuznetsov. "You can see how he played in the playoffs, when it's important games he is on top of his game."

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