Continued from page 4

He’s traveled from city to city without truly taking root with one team, though his family has settled in South Florida, where he played for the Panthers for parts of seven seasons. Quiet by nature and more comfortable speaking his native language, Kozlov blends into the background of a locker room.

Kozlov signed a two-year contract with Washington before last season. With more Russian teammates to help include him, he has left more of his imprint on this team.

“I think he’s definitely a little more vocal,” said Caps defenseman Tom Poti, a teammate of Kozlov on the New York Islanders. “I think he just has a better comfort level when you have more guys from your homeland around. I’ve definitely seen more of a funnier side from him, and he’s definitely a lot more vocal than when I played with him before.”

Kozlov has spent much of this season on the team’s top line with Ovechkin and Backstrom. His statistics in two seasons in Washington are not a departure from his career norms, but Boudreau referred to him as “a round peg in a round hole” — a strong fit playing alongside the team’s precocious tandem.

He is set to become an unrestricted free agent again this summer, and whether he and the Caps continue their mutually beneficial relationship is to be determined.

“Yes it is,” Kozlov said when asked if he’s had more fun in the District than previous stops. “In my experience, it is. That doesn’t mean the other teams were bad, but this is such a fun team with fun guys. Plus, we are winning and that helps.

“We are all together here. It is a young team, and with a young team it is like a family the way we spend time together. Like I am married, but I still like to spend time with all the guys. We have fun times — lots of jokes.”

An open pipeline

Simeon Varlamov, one of the top goaltending prospects in the world, is the first of a next wave of players that should extend the Caps’ pipeline into Russia for years to come.

Many NHL teams either shied from selecting Russians in recent drafts or rated them severely below where talent normally would dictate. Russian amateurs now are less certain to come to (and stay in) North America because of eroded relations between the NHL and the Russian Hockey Federation and the advent of the Kontinental Hockey League.

McPhee and the Caps, however, don’t balk at these players because of their birth certificates. The Capitals selected Dmitry Kugryshev in the second round of the 2008 draft, and the high-scoring forward is in the midst of a successful rookie season in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, where he’s adapting to a different style of hockey and a new culture.

The Caps’ openness to Russian players comes back to one guy: Ovechkin. Ovi’s contract will keep him in the District for three-plus presidential terms, and the Caps reason that younger Russians will want to come to Washington to play with their country’s greatest star.

Ovechkin does his part: He hosted Varlamov, Kugryshev and Viktor Dovgan at his house in Arlington during training camp and generally serves as a mentor to his younger countrymen.

“They spend all day at my house with me, and my mom cook for everybody,” Ovechkin said during camp. “I just try to help young guys out. I remember when I came here [Dainius Zubrus] helped me a lot, and I just try to take care of them.”

Added Kurgryshev through an interpreter: “When I was younger, my favorite player was Mario Lemieux, but as I’ve gotten older I think the Russian colony here in Washington has become my favorites.”

Story Continues →