Key young players for stretch

Center Evgeny Kuznetsov, recently acquired from the KHL, has been a strong addition to the Capitals. Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images

With the trade deadline behind us, it's time to take a look at some young players who may affect the stretch run into the NHL playoffs.

The players selected are not an exclusive list. The criteria were more along the lines of players I thought were interesting for the purposes of this column or ones I haven't profiled in a while. I'm aware players not profiled, such as Olli Maatta and Nathan MacKinnon, will be big parts of the stretch run.

The big name in the prospect world this week is Washington Capitals forward Evgeny Kuznetsov. For years, Kuznetsov has been an elite prospect outside the NHL. He was ranked second in my recent top 50 drafted prospects update. People know about his dominant World Junior performance, where he was named tournament MVP, and the big numbers he has put up in the KHL, especially relative to his age.

Kuznetsov's stats took a drop from last season, though. His shots per game dropped by 1.4 (stats as of Monday), his average ice dipped about a minute, and his points and goals rate dropped despite the fact his shooting percentage increased.

However, when I asked a Russian scout if he was more pessimistic about Kuznetsov from last season, he replied, "Not as a player, but the injuries raise some concerns and the NHL is tougher physically," noting some of the minor injuries he's had recently. "When he's healthy, he's played great. Even last year's playoffs where he didn't score much he played well."

In his first NHL game against Pittsburgh on Monday, Kuznetsov played mostly on the fourth line with Tom Wilson and Jay Beagle with the occasional shift on Alex Ovechkin's line. Kuznetsov's line generated 70 percent of the shots toward the opposing end. Beagle and Wilson have typically been around the 45 percent mark this season.

In his second game, Kuznetsov's usage was in Washington's top nine. He faced quality opponents on a number of shifts and played alongside Nicklas Backstrom for a good chunk of time while his team got 53 percent of the even-strength shots.

Kuznetsov's skating, puck skills and, at times, vision have looked sharp and distinguishable from some of his teammates on the top nine. He has shown the ability to gain the zone and the offensive instincts to make plays with the puck. Where he has lacked so far has been in physical battles. Nobody expects him to ever be great in that area, but to help his team more going forward, he'll need to find a way to retrieve the puck in the offensive zone when it isn't carried in.

Washington has said Kuznetsov will need to earn his way up the lineup, which is possible for him to do in a short amount of time with health and a quick adjustment to the NHL pace. He has all the tools to be a top-tier player and is getting close to his physical prime (usually 25 years old). Time will tell if he can provide the short- and long-term spark the Capitals desperately need, especially following two consecutive losses to Pittsburgh.

Here are six more young players currently on my radar: