Photo: Carolyn Kaster
On June 25 2010, the Washington Capitals selected Evgeny Kuznetsov 26th overall. They saw him as one of the top players in the draft. He had only fallen so low, the Capitals thought, because some teams were uncertain when or if he would come to North America. George McPhee thought he could bring the 18-year-old Russian over within a year. One thousand three hundred fifty-two days later, Kuznetsov signed a two-year entry-level contract with the Caps.
“We’ve been working on it for four years,” McPhee told reporters before Washington’s game against Phoenix on Saturday. “It’s kind of like seeing the Loch Ness Monster when he walked in. We’ve heard of you, but we haven’t seen you. There he was and I found it hard to believe he was standing there after all this. It’s a pretty neat feeling that this kid’s in the fold and he’s a pretty darn good player.”
Monday night, Kuznetsov is expected to suit up for the Caps against the Pittsburgh Penguins, likely on the left wing. He was released from his KHL contract on Thursday, after Traktor Chelyabinsk failed to make the playoffs. McPhee said Kuznetsov had indicated to him earlier in the year that was his plan.
“I was convinced when I met him earlier that he was coming,” McPhee said. “It was authentic. He said ‘I’m coming this time.’ He turned down big money to do it. The question was ‘Why are you coming now?’ He said ‘The NHL is the best league in the world and I want to tell my kids someday I tried it.”
McPhee said there were times he wasn’t sure if he could get the young forward. After originally pledging to come to America, Kuznetsov kept extending his time in Russia.
“That was hard on us,” the GM said. “When I first drafted him, I really thought he could play for us, if not right away, within a year, and I told him that.”
Kuznetsov wanted desperately to play in the 2014 Sochi Olympics, on a Russian national team that favored KHL players. Kuznetsov, too, had a young wife, Nastia, and the couple was nervous about coming to America. Perhaps most importantly, Kuznetsov made $2.5 million a year. He’s now slated to earn $900,000 on his NHL deal, but the first year will be burned right away. Because of his age, the entry-level deal runs for two years rather than the usual three. That means Kuznetsov will be in for a raise in just a year and a half.
“I don’t know whether it’s made him better or worse,” McPhee said of Kuznetsov’s time in the KHL. “Sometimes there are bad habits that can come into a game.”
Fifteen minutes before McPhee spoke to reporters, Kuznetsov officially signed his contract with Washington. His first NHL action should come within 48 hours, without a full practice with his new teammates. It seems like a tough task to ask of Kuznetsov, who last played in North American in 2012 and just got off a series of three cross-continental and intercontinental flights. However, the Capitals are currently three points out of a playoff spot with a tough final month ahead. They are desperate for any help.
More than anything, however, the Caps are relieved Kuznetsov is finally their property.
“You have to weigh that risk with the reward,” McPhee said. “When it got to that pick, we said “We’ve got to take this guy. He’s that good.’ We might not see him for a couple years — didn’t expect it to be four.”
“It isn’t very often that they don’t come, but he’s here now,” he added.