- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 9, 2014

Almost four years after the Capitals selected him in the first round of the NHL draft, Evgeny Kuznetsov arrived in Washington on Saturday in the flesh.

“It’s kind of like seeing the Loch Ness Monster when he walked in,” Washington general manager George 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.”

“All of this” included an extended stay in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League with his hometown club, Traktor Chelyabinsk. Kuznetsov first told the Caps that he didn’t feel ready to come to the NHL shortly after he was drafted in 2010. McPhee had similar conversations with teenage phenoms before, including star center Nicklas Backstrom, who stayed in Sweden an extra season after he was drafted in 2006, and was fine with it.

But a second contract extension with Traktor after the 2012 season? At that point, McPhee wondered if Kuznetsov was really serious about testing himself against the world’s best players in the NHL.

Last week, however, once Traktor’s KHL season came to an abrupt end when that team missed the playoffs, Kuznetsov, now 21, was finally ready to leave home. His representatives negotiated a contract release with Traktor. With no games left to play save a consolation tournament for non-playoff teams, the club didn’t stand in Kuznetsov’s way even though his deal didn’t expire until May 1.

“Any hockey player wants to play NHL, wants to win the [Stanley] Cup,” Kuznetsov said in his first meeting with reporters on Sunday at Kettler Iceplex. “It’s my dream [to] play NHL. Happy to be here. I’m ready 100 percent. I want to play.”

That could happen as soon as Monday night against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Kuznetsov endured three long flights from Chelyabinsk, a city in western Siberia, to Moscow to Munich to Washington. He took a physical, signed his entry-level contract with the Caps and by Saturday night had crashed into a deep sleep at teammate Alex Ovechkin’s home in McLean.

But Kuznetsov got a skate in early on Sunday morning and will watch video with coach Adam Oates on Monday and then take the morning skate. McPhee said the hope is Kuznetsov will play about six-to-12 minutes against the Penguins as Washington desperately fights for a playoff berth.

The Caps (30-25-10, 70 points) are one point behind the No. 8 seed Columbus Blue Jackets and the ninth-place Detroit Red Wings. Those teams each have a game in hand, and would win the tiebreaker with Washington, too. There are just 17 games to go. Can Kuznetsov, who has never played in an NHL game, really make a difference?

“I haven’t had any conversations about the kid, but we’re not looking at him like he’s gonna come in and save this team and run this team,” forward Brooks Laich said. “The veteran guys are here and the core of the team is responsible for it. Pieces come and pieces go and if he’s one that can help us, great.”

There’s a reason his arrival has been long awaited, though. At 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, Kuznetsov is a creative player with the ability to score goals consistently. That is in short supply in the NHL and the Caps clearly need some added skill to go with a surplus of bigger wingers. McPhee also lauded his hockey sense.

But showcasing those natural gifts in the KHL and at prestigious tournaments like the World Juniors, where Kuznetsov was dominant against his fellow under-20 players in 2011 as Russia won a gold medal, is far different from doing so in the NHL. He will have to deal with the smaller ice rinks in North America and the physical play here. Space is tighter, windows to make plays close faster. Kuznetsov might be creative, but there is no guarantee that automatically translates.

“It’s a big adjustment,” McPhee said. “In fact, some of our guys really had difficulty when they came back from the Olympics, the first couple of sessions on the ice. Even though [Backstrom] and [Ovechkin] have grown up on the big ice, to play [in North America] now for a number of years and then go back to the big ice and come back, they said it took a couple days to adjust again.”

Oates also must find a position for Kuznetsov, who played primarily right wing in Russia. The Caps see him as a center eventually and he said Sunday he’s spent some time there and at left wing during KHL games. But Oates is likely to employ Kuznetsov, a left-handed shot, on the left wing at first. In his postgame comments after a 3-2 win over Phoenix on Saturday night, Oates, too, sought to temper expectations.

“I watched [Kuznetsov] this summer. I went over there and I watched him,” Oates said. “And quite honestly, it’s very difficult to watch over there because the hockey is opposite to the way we play. So in fairness to him, he’s not used to the pace of our game, the skating of our game, the physicality of our game. There’s going to be a transition for him.”



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