- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The demands of fatherhood and the difficulty in taking a newborn home to his native Russia have saddled Evgeny Kuznetsov with unfamiliar demands.

Last summer, when Kuznetsov finished out his season by playing his first 17 games with the Washington Capitals, he returned to Chelyabinsk for roughly a month, recollecting himself and preparing for a different phase of his life.

Now, he’s doing the same, albeit in a different way. His wife, Nastia, gave birth to a daughter, Ecenia, in late May, which has brought other responsibilities. They have had to hunt for a larger apartment, keeping in mind the need for a nearby playground, and home life has changed as well.

“You wake up at night,” Kuznetsov deadpanned.

He can sleep a bit easier, though, knowing that one of his largest offseason hurdles had been cleared. Kuznetsov signed a two-year, $6 million contract to return to the Capitals on Monday, completing a “bridge deal” that will remain salary-cap friendly while also allowing him to remain a restricted free agent when it expires.

The deal will give Kuznetsov a $400,000 signing bonus in addition to his $2.2 million salary for the coming season, and he’ll make $3.4 million in 2016-17. Such a deal was a bonus for the Capitals, who only have approximately $10 million left against the salary cap — much of which they’ll need to sign goaltender Braden Holtby and left wing Marcus Johansson, each of whom remain restricted free agents.

Kuznetsov, 23, recognized the value in such a contract and, in speaking with reporters on the first time Tuesday afternoon as the Capitals hosted the first day of their development camp, seemed genuinely pleased with it.

“I have two more years to show all my hockey and all this stuff,” Kuznetsov said. “It’s always motivation for you when you have one, two years. Maybe long contract is good, too, but I never been in that situation.”

It wasn’t until near the midpoint of the season that Kuznetsov finally found a regular role with the Capitals, settling in as the second-line center after a bump from the fourth line in late November.

He finished the regular season with 11 goals and 26 assists over 80 games — the most points for a Capitals rookie since defenseman John Carlson also had 37 in 2010-11. It wasn’t until the postseason that he started to break out, scoring two goals in Game 5 of the first-round playoff series against the New York Islanders and providing the game-winner in the decisive Game 7 with 7:18 remaining.

Kuznetsov said he took some time once the Capitals were eliminated from the playoffs to review his season, but, as usual, declined to share what he thought of his play.

What he did come to realize, however, is how happy he was playing in the NHL, which he called “the best league in the world right now.” Kuznetsov played for Traktor Chelyabinsk, his hometown team in the Russian-based KHL, for parts of five seasons before joining the Capitals, and the decision to leave the league for the United States was significantly complicated.

“Different life, different hockey,” Kuznetsov said. “I’ve been in that situation, playing in the KHL, and I want to stay here I don’t know how many more years, but my wife and my family feel comfortable right now here. I feel [comfortable] too, so it’s a different world.”

Of course, there will be more changes coming for Kuznetsov. Washington signed right wing Justin Williams to a two-year, $6.5 million contract shortly after the free-agent signing period began last week, and then acquired right wing T.J. Oshie from the St. Louis Blues in a trade the following day.

Their acquisitions will give the Capitals a solid top six heading into next season, with either Williams or Oshie expected to slot in along Kuznetsov on the second line. On his left side could be Johansson — or it could be Andre Burakovsky, also a rookie last season who enjoyed his own breakout playoff success.

“I’m always very excited when my team has a new guys and guys who have lots of experience,” Kuznetsov said, “but it’s always hard to lose the guys, right? But this is hockey life. You never know what’s going to happen tomorrow. I think both guys are going to help us, and I know lots of stories about Williams and Oshie. It’s good people.”

While he hasn’t yet been back on the ice, Kuznetsov has been working with strength and conditioning coach Mark Nemish on a training regimen that should see him add more muscle and get stronger.

Kuznetsov liked the program Nemish gave him last season, and has come to enjoy the workouts. He’s gotten acclimated to the Washington area, and now, with the contract negotiations out of the way, can focus on the next stage of his transition.

“I feel comfortable living here and practice here,” Kuznetsov said. “[I] probably live in this locker room with most time in my life right now, and I really enjoy it.”

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