Evgeny Kuznetsov may be the kind of player worth waiting for. He lit up the world junior championships (twice) and held his own with grown men in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League. And he’s only 20.
Now the Washington Capitals will have to wait, as their blue chip former first-rounder and the forward considered the top prospect in hockey officially signed a two-year deal with Traktor Chelyabinsk of the KHL.
This was more of a formality than a surprise, as Kuznetsov recently made it clear he was staying with Traktor in part because he wanted to represent Russia in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
“He’s a young guy, he’s only 20 years old so we understand why he might not want to leave yet. But at some point he’ll want to come to this league,” Caps general manager George McPhee said last month. “It’s the best league in the world. He’s a heck of a player, so when he’s ready to come we’ll be ready for him.”
McPhee knew not to expect Kuznetsov for next season based on conversations with his agent but said he didn’t know for sure about a two-year commitment to stay in Russia. McPhee has said on numerous occasions that Kuznetsov needs to come to North America to shed some bad habits that can fester in the KHL. That’s still a concern, but his upside is still scary.
“We like him a lot as a player. We think he’s a terrific player,” McPhee said B”ut at the right time, as I said, he’s only 20. I think he can take the bad habits out of the game. On the other hand, he’s usually bigger and stronger if they come a little bit later.”
A little bit later would be the 2014-15 season if he plays out his contract with Traktor. That would be after the Olympics, and Kuznetsov would still be 22 years old.
The Caps retain the NHL rights to their 2010 first-round pick despite this KHL contract.
For the Caps moving forward, this likely means going the free agent route to replace Alexander Semin, barring the surprise decision of the winger deciding to return. The unrestricted free agent pool is not deep but includes the likes of Zach Parise, Dustin Penner and Jiri Hudler.