There are plenty of hoops remaining, but the Capitals at least moved one step closer Tuesday to gaining the services of top prospect Evgeny Kuznetsov.
The 21-year-old Russian, Washington’s first-round draft pick in 2010, played in his final regular season game with his hometown club, Traktor Chelyabinsk. Traktor missed qualifying for the KHL playoffs with a loss on Tuesday.
Technically, Kuznetsov’s contract goes until April 30, the last possible day of the KHL postseason. Kuznetsov would need to come to an agreement with Traktor and the Caps must sign him to an entry-level contract and make sure they have the salary cap space to fit him on the roster for him to jump to the NHL this season. It is unclear if Kuznetsov has already secured a visa for an extended stay in the United States.
And even after all of those hurdles are cleared, the question remains: Can Kuznetsov actually help Washington down the stretch as it fights for a playoff berth?
He has limited experience on the smaller ice in North America. He also struggled through an injury-plagued season in the KHL with just eight goals and 13 assists (21 points) in 34 games. His position is unclear, too. The Caps see him as a center for now. Kuznetsov played right wing in Russia. But he shoots left and coach Adam Oates is a stickler for putting left-handed shots on the left wing.
“I don’t know how [Kuznetsov is] gonna play on the small ice, to be honest with you,” Caps star winger Alex Ovechkin said. “He’s a skilled guy. Of course, he’s probably gonna need some time to realize what’s happening. We’re gonna help him.”
Ovechkin spoke with Kuznetsov on Tuesday, but said his situation remains unclear. Kuznetsov told Traktor’s web site earlier this month that he would live with Ovechkin whenever he does arrive in Washington. Ovechkin later confirmed that in a chat with reporters last week.
After his rough season with Traktor, Kuznetsov is ranked by The Hockey News as the organization’s second-best prospect behind 2013 first-round draft pick Andre Burakovsky. But at age 19 and 20, Kuznetsov posted numbers comparable to Ovechkin and Penguins star center Evgeni Malkin when they played in the KHL as teenagers.
Kuznetsov had 19 goals and 21 assists (40 points) in 49 games in 2011-12. Last season he scored 19 goals and had 25 assists (44 points) in 51 games. Ovechkin had 13 goals and 14 assists (27 points) at age 19. Malkin had 21 goals and 26 assists (47 points) in the KHL at age 19.
But Kuznetsov’s future teammates are trying to temper expectations.
“Honestly, I don’t care about a guy who’s not in this dressing room until he’s in this room,” Caps forward Troy Brouwer said. “If he comes and he can help our hockey club, absolutely. He’s more than welcome here. Until he shows up and is here, he’s none of my concern.”