Photo: Chris Gordon
At Kettler Capitals Iceplex on Sunday morning, a dozen reporters and three photographers watched Evgeny Kuznetsov skate around for 45 minutes. It was eight in the morning and he was the only player on the ice. Fans held up signs welcoming him in Russian and wore his KHL jersey in the stands. The day before, Kuznetsov had signed a two-year entry-level contract with Washington, ending a four year battle to bring him over from the KHL after being drafted 26th overall by the Capitals in 2010.
“My contract is over,” Kuznetsov told reporters gathered in the Kettler conference room. “I’m excited. All is good.”
“Any hockey player wants to play in the NHL, wants to win the Cup,” he added. “It’s my dream to play in the NHL. I’m happy to see you. I’m ready 100 percent. I want to play.”
Seeing Kuznetsov skate was a surreal experience, a testament to the hype surrounding the young Russian. On Saturday, Caps general manager George McPhee compared it to a sighting of the Loch Ness Monster. McPhee says Kuznetsov has unknown potential. But, of course, that’s the thing. We don’t really know what Kuznetsov can do in the NHL. He was the star of the 2011 World Junior Championships, registering 11 points in seven games playing on an NHL-sized rink. Kuznetsov, though, is also the same player who struggled this year in the KHL, scoring just eight goals. Now, he’ll have to adjust to smaller ice.
“Not best season,” Kuznetsov said of his time in the KHL this year. “It’s a new year for me.”
“If you’re a good hockey player, it doesn’t matter where you play — big ice or small ice,” he added.
Monday night, we’ll start to find out where Kuznetsov is. After being in America for just two days, he is expected to suit up against the Pittsburgh Penguins, as the Capitals desperately scratch for points.
“If coach say I play, I play,” Kuznetsov said. “Everybody wants to win — every game, every time, every minute.”
“You don’t want to win, you don’t need to practice,” he concluded.
The Caps have waited on Kuznetsov for four years. Yesterday, McPhee said he thought the Russian could have played for the Caps right after being drafted in 2010. Instead, Kuznetsov decided to stay in his hometown of Chelyabinsk, successively putting off the Caps year after year. Before this season, however, Kuznetsov decided he was ready, telling McPhee as much when the general manager came to visit him. He got Traktor to agree to void his contract after they failed to make the playoffs, finally prepared to make the jump at 21.
“I’m so excited to play with these guys on the team,” Kuznetsov said. “Backie and Ovi, I think, best ten player in the world.”
Kuznetsov will eased into the Caps. McPhee said yesterday he wasn’t sure if Kuznetsov would play six or 12 minutes in tomorrow’s game. Kuznetsov’s English, too, is somewhat shaky. He giggled and joked through his opening meeting with reporters, but sometimes had to rely on Caps PR man Sergey Kocharov to convey what he wanted to say.
“Yesterday, my first interview in English,” Kuznetsov said. “I not ready. Today my second. I’m a little scared. I sweat.”
Kuznetsov is also staying with Alex Ovechkin for the first month, getting settled before his wife Nastia and Yorkshire terrier Julietta travel over.
“My parents say thanks Alex,” Kuznetsov said. “Maria is good cook.”