WASHINGTON, D.C. — The shaving cream landed with impeccable comedic timing, right as Evgeny Kuznetsov began addressing the importance of focus. He wiped some from his eyes and dabbed more from his mouth, trying to talk but laughing instead, looking like a clown smeared with too much makeup. By the time he continued, Kuznetsov was still squinting and his cheek was framed by a C-shaped glob—perhaps the Zorro-like calling card of his ambusher, Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin. He finished his thought and laughed again. Shaving cream was dangling from his teeth.
“He walk so quick,” Kuznetsov says several days later. “I knew that moment was coming.”
He knew because this kind of thing sometimes happens to those who score hat tricks, particularly 23-year-olds who once invaded Ovechkin’s media scrum by holding a jock strap behind the cameras. In a 7–4 win last Friday night, Kuznetsov hung three goals and two assists on the Edmonton Oilers. For this, the NHL’s First Star of the Week (thanks to his six assists and nine points in three games), was forced to handle the remaining questions with part of his face covered in white. But Kuznetsov finished, shrugging his shoulders as he described his second goal—a breakaway backhander through the five-hole—that he celebrated by flashing what Coach Barry Trotz called “his boyish smirk”—excessive compared to his third-goal reaction of softly pumping his fist.
The brief pie interlude aside, this was the business-like side of Kuznetsov, hands clasped behind his back, serious after his opus powered the Caps to a three-game sweep through Western Canada and ran their overall winning streak to five. They are the league’s offensive leaders with 4.14 goals per game thanks in no small part to their first-line center, who through the early stages of his second season is tied for fourth in the NHL in points (11), tied for second in primary assists (six), third in points per 60 minutes (5.17) and reticent to talk about his success.
“Because we have too many people who can talk about me,” he said. “Maybe when I retire.”
This was, in part, a conscious decision made several years ago, Kuznetsov says, when he was younger and playing in the KHL, a rising star receiving attention in Russia. Lots of people talked about him then too, often louder after Kuznetsov talked about himself, and the negative reaction to a few of their interviews took their toll. He just didn’t like the feeling. He closed his fist to demonstrate how he tried to avoid personal matters, always turning those questions into team issues. “You have to be straight with your answers,” he says. “Stay short and true.”
To focus on this, however, would be to ignore the Kuznetsov who teammates know well, the one with the goofy, energetic, jovial side that often peeks through. The Kuznetsov who loves watching Family Feud with other Capitals at their practice facility and texting funny YouTube videos to his friend, defenseman Brooks Orpik, who described his infectious laugh as “really high pitched.” That Kuznetsov routinely surprises maids at the team’s hotel, brightening the hallways by asking, in a Russian accent, how their mornings are going. That Kuznetsov inspired T-shirts with his affinity for English idioms, loves American rap music and Michael Jordan, and wears a suit stitched with the nickname that was given to him by teammates Michael Latta and Tom Wilson: Harry Potter.
“Life may be over so quickly like that—boom—you’re 75,” Kuznetsov says, by way of explaining his passion for fun.
Translation: Make it count.
“You never see him mad or serious,” says defenseman Dmitry Orlov.
What about when he meets with the media?
“Poker face. He makes poker face.”
A damned good one, but there is no more room to bluff. After signing a two-year bridge deal with the Capitals this summer worth an average annual value of $3 million, Kuznetsov wasted little time reclaiming the starring role he seized during the playoffs. His face-off percentage has improved and Trotz has no trouble deploying him for tough defensive assignments, two of the larger concerns during Kuznetsov’s rookie season. Put it this way: Nicklas Backstrom, the NHL’s reigning assists leader, is healthy and playing well but currently centering the second line. Anchoring Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie up front, Kuznetsov has given Trotz no reason to change things.
“Right now he show he’s one of the best players in the league,” Orlov says.
“He’s comfortable in his own skin here,” Trotz says. “Therefore you’re seeing the player I think our scouts saw as a player coming over here, and now you’re seeing it grow. It’s pretty cool.”
Only in passing does Trotz catch glimpses of the personality teammates describe. He’s aware of those Family Feud viewing sessions with Orpik, but he has noticed Kuznetsov emerge in other ways. On the plane flight from Vancouver, headed for a back-to-back in Edmonton, Ovechkin and Kuznetsov watched their shifts on video together and got into an avid discussion in Russian. They were apparently loud enough that Trotz overheard them.
“They were like two old ladies barking, nattering at each other,” Trotz said. “I had no idea what they were talking about. I said, ‘You guys going to work it out?’ And they said, ‘Oh yeah. We’re going to be good tomorrow.’ That’s all I got from them.
“And then he gets five points, so…”
These days, Kuznetsov can still often be found in the practice facility watching video of more established NHL centers like Pavel Datsyuk, Patrice Bergeron and Backstrom, but much of his life has changed outside. He has a baby daughter now—she's around the same age as Harlow Lilly Orpik, who was born last March—and a 9:30 p.m. bedtime on nights without games. After practice, his big plans were “shower and taking wife to dentist.” Between the demands of the season and his parents visiting before the Western Canada trip, he ran out of time for private English lessons, but the daily discourse among teammates is good enough. Plus, he’s not shy about asking for clarification.
“He doesn’t have that fear of being embarrassed,” Orpik says.
So what’s a little shaving cream when you’re young, talented and life in the NHL is good?