The Capitals have signed prospect Evgeny Kuznetsov to an entry-level contract, paving the way for him to join the team in the coming days.
Terms were not immediately disclosed. 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.
Within days, Kuznetsov and Traktor came to an agreement to end his contract early. It was due to expire on April 30th and the Caps were steadfast in not commenting on his status until those two sides worked out an agreement for Kuznetsov to leave early for the NHL.
General manager George McPhee said it was a deal four years in the making since Washington selected Kuznetsov 26th overall in the 2010 draft. The organization though Kuznetsov could play in the NHL, if not right away then within a year or two. The Caps were disappointed that he chose to sign a two-year extension with Traktor after the 2011-12 season.
"It's kind of like seeing the Loch Ness Monster when he walked in," McPhee said. "We've heard of you, but we haven't seen you. And there he was. And I found it hard to believe he was standing there after all this."
Washington center Nicklas Backstrom made a similar decision after he was drafted in 2006, but after an extra year in Sweden made the jump to the NHL. McPhee was fine with that. It was the extra two years for Kuznetsov that tweaked him.
Teammate Alex Ovechkin said this week that Kuznetsov will live at his house during his first weeks in the Washington area. He also admitted there were questions about how quickly Kuznetsov can adjust to the smaller ice surface in North America.
During an injury-plagued season in the KHL, Kuznetsov scored just eight goals with 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," Ovechkin said earlier this week. "He's a skilled guy. Of course, he's probably gonna need some time to realize what's happening. We're gonna help him."
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. Pittsburgh star center Evgeni 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.
"There's a lot of hype around him. That's as much as I know," forward Troy Brouwer said. "I've never met him, I've never seen him play hockey. I just know what the few guys who've played against him have had to say about him. Highly skilled player. And so hopefully he can help us out, because I think – he's a left-handed shot? Is that right? With [Brooks Laich] not skating right now, those left wingers are more and more important.
The Hockey News puts together a comprehensive list of the game's top prospects every February with extensive consultation with scouts and front-office executives throughout the NHL. Kuznetsov fell to No. 2 on the Washington prospect list after his up-and-down year in the KHL. Left wing Andre Burkovsky, the team's first-round selection in the 2013 draft who is having a big season for Erie in the Ontario Hockey League, was put first overall.
Kuznetsov will meet with the media at Kettler Iceplex on Sunday, an off day for Washington after tonight's game vs. Phoenix at Verizon Center. McPhee said he expects Kuznetsov to be in the lineup Monday for his NHL debut against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Where he will play - wing or center, top line or fourth line - is up to Oates.
"I don't whether [the extra time in KHL] it's made him better or worse, to be honest with you," McPhee said. "And this is going to be a very difficult to step into this League at this time of year. This is a darn good league and these are like playoff games right now."
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