While the rest of the Washington Capitals enjoyed a day off Sunday morning, Evgeny Kuznetsov took his first skate after signing his entry-level NHL contract and said he’s ready to jump into the lineup whenever Coach Adam Oates will have him.
“Any hockey player wants to play in the NHL, wants to win the Cup. It’s my dream, [to] play in NHL,” Kuznetsov said. “I’m ready, 100 percent. I want to play,”
Roughly 50 people gathered at the Capitals’ practice facility in Arlington to watch Kuznetsov’s 45-minute workout, and if things go according to General Manager George McPhee’s plan, the 21-year-old forward make his NHL debut Monday night, when Washington hosts the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Kuznetsov, a smooth-skating 6-foot-2, 200-pound forward, is expected to play left wing for the Capitals and projects as a top-six forward. For all his potential, not even McPhee is sure how Kuznetsov will fare in the NHL after struggling with injuries this season in the Kontinental Hockey League and recording just eight goals in 31 games.
Oates has been careful not to elevate expectations for the 2010 first-round draft pick too quickly, reminding all who will listen that Kuznetsov has never experienced the grinding and grueling style of the NHL.
“He doesn’t know this hockey,” Oates said following Washington’s 3-2 victory over Phoenix on Saturday. “He’s not used to the pace of our game, the skating of our game, the physicality of our game. So there’s going to be a transition for him, but he’s a very talented man. I think he’s big enough, and he’s got a good head on his shoulders. We’ll try to ease him in as slow as we can and hopefully not play him 20 minutes the first night.”
International hockey, played on an ice surface 15 feet wider than NHL rinks, typically features more side-to-side play with players weaving in and out of all three zones. The North American game, however, rewards those who drive the play straight up the ice enduring the physical contact that comes with it.
The Capitals expect there will be an adjustment period for Kuznetsov, considering that even players who have spent years in the NHL such as Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom needed time to transition back after the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi and after playing in Russia during last season’s NHL lockout.
“Sometimes there are bad habits that can come into a [player’s] game in that style of play over there,” McPhee said. “We noticed last year when Nick and Ovi came back after the lockout that they had a little bit of that in their game, but you can snap them out of it pretty quickly.”
Kuznetsov may not have the best command of English – he said Sunday conducting interviews not in his native Russian made him nervous and resulted in sweaty palms – but that didn’t mask his quirky personality or his determination to show he can succeed in the NHL. He joked with reporters, urging those curious about the way he plays to come to Monday’s game, and expressed his gratitude to Ovechkin for hosting him.
But when he was asked about the uncertainties of adapting to a new league and style of play, Kuznetsov turned serious.
“If you good hockey player it doesn’t matter where you play – big ice, small ice,” Kuznetsov said. “I’m ready to play hard hockey. I’m not scared.”