Evgeny Kuznetsov Image by: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Alex Ovechkin might be considered the Conn Smythe Trophy favorite, but arm-flapping playmaker Evgeny Kuznetsov could swoop in and steal the hardware given his body of work across the entire post-season.
The Conn Smythe Trophy is one of those individual awards whose importance really doesn’t sink in until long after the playoffs are over. If you’re on the team that wins the Stanley Cup, you’re too elated about your team achievement to care much about it. If you’re on the losing team, you’re downtrodden about coming up short and all you want to do is get off the ice as soon as possible.
So it’s understandable that Evgeny Kuznetsov doesn’t have terribly strong feelings about emerging as a leading candidate to win the trophy should the Washington Capitals win the Stanley Cup in Vegas tonight. (Now, wouldn’t that be a party?) “What’s it going to give you? Nothing, right?” Kuznetsov said after his three-assist performance in Game 4 when asked if he cares about the Conn Smythe. “People are going to talk about it, but I don’t think that’s the biggest thing for me.”
Should the series end in five tonight, one thing is certain and that is a Russian-born player will be named playoff MVP for only the second time in NHL history. Either Kuznetsov or Alex Ovechkin will join Evgeni Malkin as the only Russian players to win the award so far, and Nicklas Lidstrom and Henrik Zetterberg as the only Europeans. There really are no other serious contenders at this point. Vegas goalie and odds-on favorite entering the final, Marc-Andre Fleury, has played himself out of contention. Capitals counterpart Braden Holtby has been very good and there might not be a more impactful player in this Stanley Cup final on either team than T.J. Oshie, but when you look at the entire body of work over the past two months, it’s down to two players.
Ovechkin is probably the favorite at this point, but you could make the case that Kuznetsov, the bird-flapping assist machine who has been so dangerous in all situations, actually deserves it more. With 31 points and counting, Kuznetsov will likely be the only player in this year’s playoffs to surpass the 30-point mark. In terms of points, he’s actually been more productive than Ovechkin both at even strength and on the power play. His next even-strength point will be the 20th of this year’s playoffs and will put him one ahead of Jake Guentzel of the Pittsburgh Penguins for the league lead, which is pretty remarkable considering Guentzel played only two rounds of the playoffs.
Ovechkin, meanwhile, also has a strong case. There have been games where he hasn’t produced points and been the best player on the ice. He’s playing in all three zones and hitting with reckless abandon. And how do you measure the emotional impact he has had on this Capitals team? The guy has been a human highlight reel with his emotional reactions alone. He is clearly the alpha male of this team and, as many of the Capitals have remarked, is doing a great job of dragging them into the fight.
Either one would be a solid choice at this point. If Kuznetsov does win the award, even more GMs and scouts will be left wondering what might have been. The 26th overall pick in the 2010 draft, Kuznetsov has emerged as one of the best from that group. The problem for Kuznetsov was that he was draft eligible at a time when there were teams that simply were not going to use a high pick on a Russian player. They felt there was too much uncertainty surrounding whether they would play in the NHL or stay home and some of those age-old biases surrounding Russian players were creeping back into the minds of many people who hold the levers of power in the game. The Montreal Canadiens, who had the 22nd pick in that draft, passed on Kuznetsov to take Jared Tinordi. Tinordi has never made his mark in the NHL and Kuznetsov has emerged as the dominant playmaking center the Canadiens so sorely lack in their lineup.
He and Ovechkin are putting a lot of those notions to rest with their play in these playoffs and have developed a unique chemistry. Kuznetsov clearly thrives on setting teammates up more than scoring, although he has taken almost as many shots as Ovechkin has in these playoffs, which allows him to mesh with the greatest goalscorer of his generation.
“Oh yeah, definitely,” he said when asked if he enjoys registering assists more than goals. “I can shoot a couple of times, but I feel that when I can find guys who are open it keeps the other team in a tough situation.”
Want more in-depth features and expert analysis on the game you love? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.