- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Whatever you do, don’t call Evgeny Kuznetsov old.

“I’m not one of the older guys,” Kuznetsov said. “Come on!”

The 25-year-old Capitals center, drafted as a teen by Washington in 2010, laughed. 

Asked about the development of some of the younger players aiming to make the Capitals’ roster, Kuznetsov maintained that, at his age, he’s still part of the team’s youth movement.

Kuznetsov will have new linemates this season after the Capitals traded away Marcus Johansson to the New Jersey Devils and lost Justin Williams in free agency to the Carolina Hurricanes.

But there are differences — 62.4 million of them, actually — between Kuznetsov and a player like Jakub Vrana, a prospect trying to not only break into the top six but make the Capitals’ roster. Kuznetsov, previously a restricted free agent, signed an eight-year, $62.4 million contract in the offseason — making him an important piece of the Capitals’ future.

With the big new contract, Kuznetsov — who is easygoing and often playful with teammates and the media — faces serious new expectations.

For the deal to happen, the Capitals traded Johansson to clear salary cap space. Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said in July they were essentially forced to choose between the two and they went with Kuznetsov.

Kuznetsov said his contract is about trust, not money.

“They want more from me and I understand that,” he said. “I want people to ask more from me. If they give me a bigger role, I will try to do my best. If you think I’m going to be settled down right now and enjoy the life, no, it’s not who I am. Even if something is not going well, I will be better for sure.”

In four seasons with the Capitals, Kuznetsov has yet to top more than 20 goals in a single year. The Russian had 59 points last season, with 19 goals and 40 assists. As a center, Kuznetsov helps set up other players on the ice.

Kuznetsov, though, was one of the Capitals’ most productive players in the playoffs. He was third on the team in points with five goals, which tied for second most, and five assists.

“I think the key for him is to keep improving, to be at the top of the league in points, to be able to play against the best players in the league, against the best defensemen,” MacLellan said. “All those things, I think he’s able to handle now, responsibility-wise.”

Who will Kuznetsov be paired with this season? Capitals coach Barry Trotz has put Kuznetsov on a line with star Alex Ovechkin and Vrana. The move might not be permanent, but Trotz said he wants to evaluate how Ovechkin plays with Kuznetsov.

The line is somewhat surprising considering Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom have a long history of playing together. Still, splitting up stars isn’t uncommon. The Chicago Blackhawks, for instance, use Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane on two different lines to create balance on every line.

“My process right now is to get [Kuznetsov and Ovechkin] playing that for a bit here,” Trotz said.

Ovechkin said Kuznetsov signing an extension will make the forward more comfortable.

“When you feel confident, you play much better,” Ovechkin said. “You don’t have to feel about, ‘OK I have to score right now 20 goals or 21 goals and it’s gonna raise my salary.’”

The decision to re-sign with the Capitals wasn’t a slam dunk.

Kuznetsov said he seriously considered offers from the KHL, the Russian hockey league, because of the possibility to play in the Olympics. In April, the NHL announced it would not disrupt the season for the games and players under contract would have to stay put.

Like Ovechkin, Kuznetsov badly wanted to play for his country this winter in the PyeongChang Games. The 25-year-old has yet to compete in the Olympics. He didn’t make the Russian roster in Sochi.

His decision to stay in Washington comes with a commitment to the franchise — something Kuznetsov said he understands.

“I’m not the guy who has to talk with people 1,000 times to understand something,” Kuznetsov said. “I understand that and I will do it, for sure.”

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