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Kuznetsov taking on more responsibility with Capitals

Despite playful demeanor, center expected to be leader on ice after signing long-term contract

by Tom Gulitti @tomgulittinhl / NHL.com Staff Writer

ARLINGTON, Va. -- That Evgeny Kuznetsov responded to the question with a question didn't make the center's answer any less revealing.

Heading into his fourth full season with the Washington Capitals, having signed an eight-year, $62.4 million contract on July 2, does Kuznetsov envision himself taking on more of a leadership role?

"You mean, make serious speeches in the locker room?" Kuznetsov said.

Being serious doesn't seem to fit Kuznetsov's playful personality. Sticking a puck between his teeth and skating it over to the linesman, as he did during a stoppage in play against the Detroit Red Wings last season, is more his style.

But though Kuznetsov is often the one lightening the mood, he has a serious side that's driven by his desire to win and he is embracing the idea of becoming one of the Capitals' leaders.

"There's a little bit more responsibility now on me and that's what I need," he said. "That's what I want, and I want the coaching staff, the fans, everybody to expect more from me. It's a challenge. That's what I want. That's what I need."

Video: WSH@MTL: Kuznetsov dangles his way in for a nifty PPG

After winning the Presidents' Trophy in back-to-back seasons, the Capitals are in transition. They're looking to replace defenseman Karl Alzner (signed with the Montreal Canadiens) and forwards Justin Williams (signed with the Carolina Hurricanes) and Marcus Johansson (traded to the New Jersey Devils). Williams and Johansson each scored 24 goals last season, and Kuznetsov is among those who need to increase his production.

Williams and Alzner were leaders on and off the ice. The Capitals would like to see Kuznetsov become a bigger presence in that regard. 

"I think he has to for us to be successful," general manager Brian MacLellan said. "He plays an important position on the team and he has the ability to change games, which I would say is the leadership we're looking for. There's games where he needs to take them over, and I think he has in a limited capacity in the past, but we want more of them going into the future here."

Kuznetsov did that more as last season progressed. After leading the Capitals with 77 points (20 goals, 57 assists) in 2015-16, he got off to a slow start with nine points (three goals, six assists) in the first 23 games but rebounded with 50 points (16 goals, 34 assists) in the final 59 games.

His strong play carried into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, when he had 10 points (five goals, five assists) in 13 games. That was a marked improvement from 2015-16, when he had two points (one goal, one assist) in 12 playoff games and was invisible for long stretches.

Kuznetsov said he believes he has another level. The 25-year-old changed his training routine this offseason, staying off the ice a few weeks longer and working more in the gym to try to eliminate the lulls in his play that plagued him the past two seasons.

"You can't play just 60, 70 games," Kuznetsov said. "You have to play 82, and I did play two full seasons without injuries. The most important thing for me right now is to take a step, take another step, elevate my game a little bit higher, and I'm going to be better for sure."

Video: Evgeny Kuznetsov lands at No. 19 on the list

Kuznetsov is expected to begin the season playing on a line with captain Alex Ovechkin on his left wing. They have been linemates before, on the Capitals and Russia national team, and Ovechkin has watched Kuznetsov grow as a person and player.

"He's matured. He's got more experience," Ovechkin said. "Right now, this is his fourth year, so he knows the League much better right now with the speed and intensity. You can see he's one of the best players on our team now and one of the best centers in the League."

By the end of last season, coach Barry Trotz trusted Kuznetsov's defensive play enough to match him against an opponent's top line. He responded well to the assignment and held his own playing against center Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Eastern Conference First Round and centers Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round.

"The great thing about [Kuznetsov] is he's very, very intelligent," Trotz said. "He understands not only the game, but he understands the whole bigger picture. He's very, very perceptive and he knows that he has to be a big part of our team. He knows that he's one of the next up-and-coming leaders or stars on our team."

After Kuznetsov was an alternate captain in a preseason game against the Canadiens at Bell Centre on Sept. 20, he downplayed it, saying it was probably because the Capitals dressed a younger lineup and he's a little bit older. But Trotz values his perspective enough now that he's begun seeking it more often.

"I haven't officially named my leadership group, but he will be in counsel a little bit more, for sure," Trotz said. "I've gone to [Kuznetsov] just to talk to him and just go, 'What do you think?' And he's very, very perceptive and very truthful. That's what you want."

Video: Discussing the expectations for the Capitals

Even if Kuznetsov officially becomes a member of Trotz's leadership group, his jovial nature is unlikely to change. As defenseman Dmitry Orlov said, "You can't be serious all the time. Sometimes you need to relax." 

Kuznetsov has a way of helping his teammates do that. But Orlov said sometimes Kuznetsov's tendency to joke around can be misleading.

"It's probably his defensive style to joke," Orlov said. "Everybody thinks differently, but that's how he is. Right now, he's going to be one of our leaders. He can handle it and it's good we signed him long-term. He's going to help us."

Just don't expect him to make any serious locker room speeches.

"For me, the most important thing is [not] what you are going to tell the guys, what you are going to tell the media," Kuznetsov said. "It's all about when you say something, you have to show that on the ice. That's the most important."

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