Carefree and Unfiltered, Evgeny Kuznetsov Is Washington’s Free Bird
A version of this story appears in the Jan. 28, 2019, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
Beyond the overarching cultural shock of moving halfway around the world, Evgeny Kuznetsov was struck by a few smaller unfamiliarities upon finally joining the NHL in March 2014. Receiving per diem on road trips, for instance, was an entirely foreign concept in his native Russia. Ditto for dining alongside coaches at team meals and dumping the puck into the offensive zone. But nothing—absolutely nothing—bothered the Washington Capitals center more than his new job’s conservative dress code.
“Wearing the suit was the biggest problem,” he says. “I still hate that s---. One day I wish the NHL can allow you to wear whatever you want. I will have new look for every game.”
It is an amusing mental image, Kuznetsov as the sartorial soulmate of Russell Westbrook or James Harden, turning hockey rinks into fashion runways with ripped jeans and designer tees and whatever else he can afford on a $7.8 million annual salary. But for now Kuznetsov is resigned to cycle through the same 10 suits, each tailored to fit his 6' 2", 204-pound frame yet bland enough to fit in. “In our sport, it’s just different,” he says. “Basketball not like that. People won’t make fun of [NBA players] because they wear pink shoes. They go, ‘O.K., that’s his style.’”
Of course, even if Kuznetsov were bouncing passes instead of saucering them, his style would still stand out. Winger Tom Wilson describes his linemate this way: “Expect the unexpected.” Indeed, few skaters possess the same impromptu pizzazz as the Capitals’ leading scorer during their 2018 Stanley Cup run, whether it’s the spinorama passes that he whips from behind opposing nets or the pristinely angled pucks that he banks off the dasher boards like a pool shark in the neutral zone. Evidently this maxim applies off the ice as well; several years ago Kuznetsov surprised the bejesus out of a former Capitals staffer by hiding behind the pump door of the team’s training room hot tub. As Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin puts it, “Funny guy. A little bit crazy.”
Spending just a couple of minutes with Kuznetsov proves his fellow Russian correct. Like the cigarettes that he fondly recalls smoking as a young kid (more on that later), Kuznetsov has no filter. Here he is, for instance, evaluating the ice conditions at the Capitals’ rink: “So awful. Worst-three [in the NHL]. You can’t even skate.” Or describing the thrill of his Stanley Cup party: “When I go from Russia to here, so many people was like, ‘Where you going? There is like big boys playing there.’ Then five years later, I bring that s--- back home? What you say now?”
Or last June, as hundreds of thousands of fans listened on the National Mall, finishing his championship parade speech with an iconic (if not inebriated) call to action: “Let’s f--- this s---.”
It was in a fit of similar spontaneity that Kuznetsov unveiled his now-signature goal celebration, a single-leg-raising, both-arms-flapping bird imitation borrowed from a FIFA video game. “I made that move and I really feel like people in Canada start hating that,” he says. “And next time I did it, people again, like, ‘F---, this f------ loser, you know? When people don’t like it, it make me do it again and again. I’m not killing somebody or like saying bad words [about] some people. Or not respect[ing] people. I’m just trying to be myself and have fun.”
Fun. This is Kuznetsov’s guiding light. Teammates have grown accustomed to hearing his laugh echo through the halls of their Arlington, Va., practice facility like a hyena hopped up on helium. But the rest of the hockey universe is still learning about one of its most creative stars, a personality that would shine even brighter if only NHL culture permitted players to be more than, as Kuznetsov puts it, “piece of stone.” In the 1950s basketball fans were blessed with Bob Cousy, Houdini of the Hardwood. Today’s puckheads have Harry Potter, as teammates once dubbed him, a major reason why the Capitals not only banished their Cup ghosts, but also hold legitimate hopes of repeating this year.
A little bit crazy? Nah, that’s just Kuzy.
One day last month, veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik was lacing up for a morning skate when Kuznetsov approached with an odd request: “Hey, do you have any extra skates?” At first Orpik directed Kuznetsov to the team’s equipment manager, assuming that he simply needed a fresh pair. No, Kuznetsov replied. He wanted used skates. “I like them soft,” he explained.
And so it was that Kuznetsov not only hit the ice wearing Orpik’s size-9.5 Bauers several minutes later, but also sported those slightly-too-large boots for the entire first period that night against Buffalo.
Recalling this story, Orpik is reminded of one of his old Pittsburgh teammates, another skilled Russian center. “[Evgeni] Malkin used to pull random guys’ sticks off the bench and score two goals,” Orpik says. Turns out that Kuznetsov has done the exact same thing, sampling every left-handed twig on the roster without regard for flex or curve. “He’d grab someone else’s stick in the rack, cut it, tape it up quick and go on the ice,” says Oilers winger Alex Chiasson, who played for the Caps last season. “And he was the best player with a brand-new stick that he’s never used before.”
The majority of Kuznetsov’s routine is just as loose. Consider his nutritional habits…or lack thereof. Served at every Capitals meal is a thick, creamy red-pepper dressing that players call Kuzy Sauce because his pregame chicken fingers always swim in the stuff. Earlier this season Wilson asked Kuznetsov how he was feeling an hour before warmups. “I’m on my fourth bagel,” Kuznetsov replied. And on Jan. 9, over dinner at a Boston steakhouse, his eyes lit up as the waiter described the featured special: tomahawk wagyu ribeye, nicely marbled, 32 ounces.
“So we’re going to share that one, right?” Kuznetsov asked his dining partner. “I’m not on some special green veggie diet. I’m totally against that s---.”
Plenty of athletes succeed with laidback personalities, of course. The difference is that Kuznetsov barely changes when the puck drops. He preempts poke checks by flailing his legs to kick away opponents’ sticks. On several occasions he has taken faceoffs opposite-handed, holding the grip tape as though he were a righty, for reasons that teammates still can’t quite wrap their helmets around. Even the way he skates looks casual. Dipping into a wide stance, Kuznetsov glides through the neutral zone with both blades on the ice, somehow gathering speed with few movements beyond a slight bend of the knee or twist of the hips. “The way he gets faster without taking a stride,” Capitals coach Todd Reirden says, “I haven’t quite figured this out."
It is not the only mystery in his game. After opening the ‘18–19 season with nine points and four goals in the Capitals’ first nine tilts, Kuznetsov has only scored four times since then. Some of this is owed to a career-low 6.8% shooting rate, but Kuznetsov still frustrates team brass with lapses in two-way attention. “He has the ability to be one of the top players in the league, and he shows it in spurts,” GM Brian MacLellan says. “I really think he could be a good penalty killer. He could choose to be a lot better on faceoffs. He could do whatever he wants, basically.”
Growing up in Chelyabinsk, Kuznetsov wanted to do exactly one thing. His family lived in what he remembers as a 28-square-meter apartment, surviving on roughly $120 each month, but their building was walking distance from the local hockey school. “Stick, puck, go play,” Kuznetsov says. “When you kid, that’s all you need. That time, one of the best time for me.”
Looking back, Kuznetsov believes this love helped him get through one of the worst. Three months before Kuznetsov turned 11, his older brother, Alexander, was killed when a May Day celebration turned violent. “I was young, you know?” Kuznetsov says. “Not even pay attention to that. I was just at the hockey rink playing hockey. That’s all I did that time. I don’t know if I could handle it right now at my age.” Kuznetsov does not remember “a lot” about Alexander. But he does manage to muster a quintessentially Kuzy answer when asked: “Couple times when our parents go somewhere, we sit in the chairs at home and smoke cigarettes.”
Kuznetsov is a long way from that world. For starters, he cut out the darts. And the eight-year extension that he signed in July 2017 currently carries the second-highest cap hit among Capitals forwards, trailing only Ovechkin. They first met at Kuznetsov’s wedding, a year after Washington picked him at No. 26 overall in 2010. (Then an assistant GM, MacLellan recalls giddiness spreading around the draft table when Kuznetsov fell that far.) Kuznetsov invited Ovechkin half-expecting that the star wouldn’t show; Ovechkin went intending to stay two days and wound up hanging out for a week. It took three more years before Kuznetsov finally left Chelyabinsk, then another two before he broke out with 77 points in ’15–16 season, becoming the first player besides Ovechkin to lead the Capitals in scoring since the Great 8 entered the league. “He knows he has a great talent,” Ovechkin says. “He’s grown up in a good way.”
This became especially clear last postseason, when center Nicklas Backstrom missed four games with a fractured right finger. Forced to fill the void, Kuznetsov had seven points in Backstrom’s absence, including the Game 6 overtime goal—fittingly enough on a torch-passing feed from Ovechkin—that clinched Washington’s second-round series win over the Penguins. No wonder getting up for games in January now seems humdrum by comparison.
As he says over dinner, sipping a non-alcoholic beer and knifing into a nicely marbled wagyu ribeye, “It’s not April, right? That’s the moments when you know one mistake will count everything. When you know there is no second chance. That’s the moment we play for.”
An hour or so later, Kuznetsov settles into a suite-level seat at TD Garden to watch the Pacers take on the Celtics. It was his suggestion to get tickets. Despite knowing next to nothing about the sport when he arrived in America, Kuznetsov is now an ardent NBA follower, studying salary-cap situations and catching the West Coast feeds on League Pass after Capitals games. He is also cultivating a D.C.–area sports friendship with Wizards guard Bradley Beal. “Been to his house a couple of times,” Kuznetsov says. “Big fan of hockey.”
Kuznetsov is fascinated with fellow athletes. He devours biographical documentaries about their backstories, recently watching one about Brazilian street painter turned Manchester City striker Gabriel Jesus. After discovering that his childhood apartment building in Chelyabinsk was located across the street from where boxer Sergey Kovalev grew up, Kuznetsov tagged along for several of the former light heavyweight champ’s fights. He expresses a particular desire to ask Wayne Rooney to dinner so he can pick the D.C. United captain’s brain about what he calls “business”—practice habits, game preparation, life as a pro. “I will for sure when I get older,” Kuznetsov says, “when I am not shy.”
In this way, Kuznetsov is far more introspective than his eccentricities might suggest. Reirden will consult him on changes to the Capitals’ defensive structure, challenging him to describe how he would beat the new system, like a corporation hiring hackers to test its software security. “It may be a little bit different or abstract than you’d expect,” Reirden says, “but he definitely has a thought on everything.” Right now, Kuznetsov dreams of spending trade deadline day inside the Capitals’ war room, or maybe the start of free agency on July 1. And whenever the 26-year-old retires, he plans to seek out an NHL referee. “I’m going to ask him so many questions,” he says. “Just want to understand how their world looks.”
Kuznetsov attacks goalies with the same curiosity, peppering positional coach Scott Murray with questions about opponents’ weaknesses. “He understands what they do and what they’re thinking,” says Murray, who submits as evidence the wrister that Kuznetsov slung past Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen’s left ear on Oct. 13, having perfectly calculated when the netminder would drop down to protect the near post. Murray also cites a Kuznetsov tally in the first round last spring that zipped through Columbus goalie Sergei Bobrovsky’s five-hole. “He know me, I know him,” Kuznetsov explained to Murray later. “He thought I was going to pass."
In fairness to Bob, passing is what Kuznetsov almost always does; through Monday night, Kuznetsov ranked 11th in assists since 2015–16 with 183, seven behind Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby. He figures his feed-first tendencies stem from a youth coach who restricted how long they could keep possession in practice: three seconds at first, then three touches, then two. “That’s how I show respect to my partners, share the puck with them,” Kuznetsov says. “When guy don’t pass to you when he sees you open, that’s disrespect. If I can score or if I can pass, make pass every day. That’s how I think.”
He has plenty of other thoughts too. Like about Don Cherry, who decried his distaste for “The Birdman” to a D.C. television station during the Cup Final: “He’s making the show, you know? It’s perfect. I like it.” And about the impact of signing his first professional contract at age 17, which allowed Kuznetsov to purchase his first computer and discover a limitless vault of creative inspiration: “When I learn what’s the YouTube? F---, it was like something unreal.”
Back at the basketball game, as Kuznetsov munches on an ice-cream sandwich, he is asked to reflect on the Capitals’ championship. “After those couple years we lose,” he says, referring to three straight second-round exits from 2015 through ’17, two of them at Pittsburgh’s hands, “I start to understand what pain mean.” The way Kuznetsov views things, fortunes only changed once the f-word entered the Capitals’ vocabulary; it’s what helped them finally get past Pittsburgh, and then pitch consecutive shutouts in Games 6-7 against Tampa Bay.
“We always been so focused, like, almost no smile,” he says. “Then last year everyone was like, ‘Enjoy it.’ Down 3-2? Yeah, having fun, enjoy it. If we’re going to die, we’re going to die having fun.”
Imagine you are Blue Jackets goalie Joonas Korpisalo. It is Jan. 12, and you have just allowed the tying power-play goal with 1:06 remaining in the third period. Now, as the ice is getting scraped before overtime, here comes the player who just celebrated scoring by parroting a parrot, cruising by with a big smile.
“Happy to score once in a while!” Kuznetsov hollered.
Pumped from the right faceoff circle, that one-timer marked Kuznetsov’s first goal in five weeks, breaking a drought that, quite frankly, seemed to bother him as much as a bug bite. “It’s not easy to have 82 games [where] you can just be perfect,” Kuznetsov says. “The guys who are there, they are legit players, right? They’re usually players who have been through five, six years. They know how to handle everything. That’s absolutely new for me. Just have to go through those months where you’re up and down, right? . . . But when you’re down, you can’t let yourself go all the way down. [That is] something new I learned.”
He has discovered a lot about his rising stardom too. Such as the benefits of staying inside when he returned to Chelyabinsk last summer. “Back home, if I go in streets, grocery store,” he says, “people just blow their mind because Capitals is so popular.” Around the Beltway, his presence sparks similar reactions. In September, Kuznetsov accompanied Ovechkin to the Brazil–El Salvador soccer friendly at FedEx Field, where they met up with Washington cornerback Josh Norman. At first Kuznetsov lingered to the side while Ovechkin and Norman exchanged jerseys, wondering if Norman thought that he was a member of Ovechkin’s entourage. Imagine his surprise when Norman called him over—“Kuzy! Kuzy!”—and began gushing about Kuznetsov’s Game 6 goal against Pittsburgh.
The biggest sign that his profile has taken flight? The bird celebration, of course. His Instagram profile is regularly tagged in videos of kids raising a single leg and flapping both arms. Recently it made an appearance at the world junior championships, courtesy of Swiss forward Yannick Brüschweiler. And if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, what did it suggest when the Blue Jackets borrowed the move en masse after Artemi Panarin’s overtime winner against the Caps on Jan. 12?
“Felt pretty good,” Columbus captain Nick Foligno said later. “No wonder Kuznetsov does it.”