- - Tuesday, January 3, 2012

CALGARY, Alberta — Once again, a young Russian winger with a “C” on his sweater is attracting intense scrutiny from the Washington Capitals’ brass at the world junior championships.

In 2005, it was a 19-year-old Alex Ovechkin captaining the Russian team to a silver medal. This year, it’s touted Caps prospect Evgeny Kuznetsov, who already is drawing comparisons to fellow Russian sharpshooters such as Alexander Semin and Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin.

General manager George McPhee wants to see Kuznetsov in the NHL and against better competition than he faces in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League.

“He should be here next year, yeah. He’s ready to play here,” McPhee said. “Sometimes when you’re not playing at the highest level you can develop some bad habits, and you don’t want that stuff to become ingrained. So get him to the best league we can.”

The world junior tournament provides an excellent chance for organizations to monitor rising international stars and assess the progress of the players they already have drafted.

The Capitals are no strangers to looking on as captains played key leadership roles: Karl Alzner wore the “C” as Canada won the 2008 championship, and John Carlson was an alternate captain for the United States in 2010 and scored the gold medal-winning goal.

Kuznetsov’s 2012 tournament (his third such event) got off to a rough start thanks to games without a point against Switzerland and Slovakia.

But last week against Latvia, Kuznetsov showed flashes of why the Caps are so eager for him to come play in North America. In an Ovechkin-like performance, the young Russian recorded three goals and six assists in a 14-0 rout, finishing one point short of the tournament record held by former Swedish star Peter Forsberg.

After the game, Kuznetsov shrugged off his performance.

“I wasn’t expecting to be one point shy. I’m quite pleased with it,” he said. “To be honest, it’s better if we’d won 1-0 instead of 14-0. It’s easier to play when it’s a close score. The opponent starts to make mistakes.”

Mistakes that Kuznetsov was all too eager to take advantage of, and his teammates didn’t shy away from deserved compliments.

“First two games, he had no points, but tonight, he comes out, has nine points and just plays an amazing game. He’s our captain and he skated great for us,” said Russian center Alexander Khokhlachev, who chipped in two goals on the night.

McPhee wasn’t in town yet for Kuznetsov’s nine-point effort but has known since taking him 26th overall in the 2010 draft the potential the 19-year-old has.

“Certainly doesn’t happen very often,” McPhee said. “But obviously he’s a talented kid and had a good night when their whole club had a pretty good night.”

Kuznetsov’s breakout performance came at last year’s world junior tournament in Buffalo, N.Y., where he notched 11 points in seven games and led Russia to the gold medal.

At the time, Kuznetsov was the only player on Russia’s roster younger than 19. Now, he’s grown to 6-foot-1 and has 24 points in 32 games for his hometown Traktor Chelyabinsk in the Kontinental Hockey League.

There was a common belief that Kuznetsov could have fit in with the Caps this year, but instead he’s honing his game in Russia at least until the end of this KHL season.

“When we interviewed for the draft, he said he wanted to play two years in the KHL to get strong enough — and he wasn’t wrong in that regard,” McPhee said. “He needed to get stronger. From a talent standpoint he’s probably got enough talent to play here, but physically you have to be strong enough.”

Kuznetsov’s KHL contract expires after this season, and he has yet to officially comment on his status for next year. The option is open for him to play for Hershey (AHL) later this season if he agrees to an entry-level deal with the Caps in time, though McPhee pointed out Kuznetsov could be a candidate for Russia’s world championship team this spring as well.

The NHL’s collective bargaining agreement precludes Kuznetsov from joining Washington this year, so the waiting game will continue. But his dominant offensive performance wherever he seems to play is likely to mean an added dose of firepower to a potent but inconsistent Caps offense in the near future.

And though the team has shied away from the run-and-gun style of years past, Kuznetsov’s deft hands and electrifying playmaking skills would surely be a welcome addition.

Washington Times staff writer Stephen Whyno contributed to this report.

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