Monday’s 3-2 loss to Pittsburgh marked the NHL debut for Caps prospect Evgeny Kuznetsov, the 21-year-old Russian who was a first-round pick in 2010, but took almost four years to arrive in Washington.
Kuznetsov had continued to play in his home country’s Kontinental Hockey League. He had 55 goals in the KHL by age 20 before injuries and inconsistency derailed his 2013-14 season with eight goals in just 31 games.
Kuznetsov began the night on the fourth line at left wing along side right wing Tom Wilson and center Jay Beagle as Washington coach Adam Oatestried to shield him from too much responsibility. He hadn’t had so much as a practice with his new team since arriving in the United States over the weekend, taking his physical and signing his entry-level contract at Verizon Center before Saturday’s game against Phoenix.
“I thought he did great,” Oates said. “As we talked about, I think we have to be patient and be realistic about expectations because it’s a foreign league for him. It’s a foreign system. He’s never played this way. He’s never played in front of this many people, really. So for me, I want to ease him in. Use him as much as possible, but also be fair to him and give him a chance to grow with the team.”
But Kuznetsov is also among the most skilled young players in the world and by the end of the first period he was briefly playing on the top line next to center Nicklas Backstrom and countryman Alex Ovechkin after an offensive zone faceoff. He finished with10:22 of ice time, took twoshots on goal and even saw some time on the power play with the second unit when Oates wanted Jason Chimera fresh for when Penguins star Sidney Crosby exited the penalty box.
“Good job for first game,” Ovechkin said. “Get some hits, get into the game and I’m pretty sure what he expect. Everybody play physical against him and he’s going to get used to it and he’s going to be fine.”
Kuznetsov began the second period back on the fourth line. His first shift with Wilson and Beagle produced a quality scoring chance down low as that line controlled possession. Later in the period he was back again skating with Ovechkin and Backstrom. There were signs of the talent Kuznetsov possesses and also times when he looked lost roaming the ice. That wasn’t by design.
“No, I really think, honest to God, that’s trying to understand how to play within our system,” Oates said. “It’s total opposite to where he’s been and trying to figure out where to go in certain situations. I think the North American hockey is so much more structured play by play.”
Oates said he was “hemming and hawing” about playing Kuznetsov more in the third period to give his team a spark before assistant coach Blaine Forsythe shook his head no. Down 3-2 and pushing for the tying goal, it wasn’t the time to have the greenest of all rookies on the ice. Kuznetsov’s time will come, maybe sooner than later. Monday was not that night.
“There was a couple moments,” Oates said. “I think there was one shift in the second you saw his hands, cut through the neutral zone and get a shot away. You could see his vision at times. Poised with the puck. He’s a great puck handler.”