For four years, since the Washington Capitals gambled on picking Russia’s Evgeny Kuznetsov in the first round of the NHL draft, they have waited and coaxed, watched and worried, but most of all hoped that someday he would leave his home country — and the money there — to test himself in hockey’s toughest league.
On Sunday, that day came. At his first workout as a Capital, the 21-year-old fulfilled expectations. Kuznetsov walked on water.
Of course, it was frozen at the time. And after he walked onto the ice at the Caps’ practice facility, mostly he just skated.
That’s just how the Capitals want it for now: tempered expectations. They note that Kuznetsov had both shoulder and knee injuries this season in the Kontinental Hockey League and did not make the Russian Olympic team.
But don’t temper too much. Kuznetsov led his team in scoring the previous three seasons, was an all-star at 19 and sixth in the KHL in scoring at 20. His point totals have merely been good, not great, but, optimists note, similar to Alex Ovechkin’s in his days in that league. As Caps leader Brooks Laich said, “We’re not looking at him like he’s going to save this team.”
But if anyone gloomy over the club’s 18th-best record in the NHL prefers to believe in mini-miracles, the Caps don’t actually object.
Sitting one spot out of the playoffs and facing both brutal foes and a rough West Coast swing in its final 17 games, this franchise needs any ray of light and a player who, by next year at the least, has real impact.
Capitals players have been lobbying Kuznetsov all season to come to the NHL. “I talk to [Dmitry] Orlov and Ovi like every day all year . . . like little joke. Every day they say, ‘Come, we need you.’
“It’s my dream: play in NHL. I’m happy to see you. Ready 100 percent.”
His biggest worry? “I need to learn English [better],” said Kuznetsov, whose fluency is several years ahead of Ovechkin’s at 21. “It makes my [hands] sweat,” he said, pretending to rub his sweaty palms.
The Caps have been the ones sweating — for four years. When they originally drafted Kuznetsov with the 26th pick, they thought and said that they had stolen a top-five talent. They can soft-pedal all they want now. But after their salesmanship, they’ll look pretty foolish if he doesn’t develop into at least a good player within the next year or two.
After General Manager George McPhee finally got Kuznetsov’s signature on the proper line Saturday evening, he looked as relieved as a man on a desert island who finally sees a ship. Maybe it saves him, maybe not. But at least he gets to wave his arms and hope for a while.
“When we first drafted him, I really thought that he could play for us, if not right away, within a year, and I told him that. He mentioned he felt he needed two years in the KHL,” McPhee said. “We get through the two years, then he signed the new deal for two more years, and that was hard on us.
“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. And there he was. I found it hard to believe he was standing there after all this.”
So will there someday be a line of Ovi, Nicky and Nessie?
“He’s a pretty darn good player,” said McPhee, who assumes the hardest time of Kuznetsov’s whole career may be the remainder of this season. “His hockey sense is really outstanding. He’s a creative player, can score goals or distribute the puck or make things happen.”
Usually general managers are loath to predict when newly arrived rookies will actually get to play in a game. After all, it’s a new country, new league, the lean 6-fo0t-2 200-pounder doesn’t know the team’s system and the Caps play their next two games against the rival Pittsburgh Penguins.
Instead, McPhee immediately said he figured Kuznetsov would probably play “six minutes, 12 minutes” Monday night for the home folks. Hey, no rush. Fly from Chelyabinsk to Moscow to Munich to D.C., get a night’s sleep, eat some of Ovechkin’s mom’s cooking and come see what you can show Sidney Crosby and the boys.
“We’ll try not to play him 20 minutes the first night,” Coach Adam Oates said cryptically. “I have some video loaded up [to show him]. We’ll see how he feels, see how he looks. If we can spot him, he could be a nice spark.”
If hockey awarded assists for charm and goals for grins, Kuznetsov would be a lock. (It doesn’t.) Asked to describe his style of play Sunday, he answered, mischievously, “Are you coming to game on Monday?”
Actually, Ovechkin can explain his style. “He’s a good passer, good skater . . . He’s young and going to learn. He just needs to play his game.”
And what is Ovi’s job as house host? “Give him lots of food, lots of sleep, lots of video.”
Eventually, Kuznetsov will find “my own place” and bring his wife and “little doggie” to D.C. But now he relishes the Ovechkin family hospitality.
“It’s very important for me, for my parents,” Kuznetsov said. “ They say — my mom says — ‘Hi, thanks, Alex.’ ”
What will Kuznetsov ask the Ovechkins to cook for him?
“All of it,” he said, grinning. “Maria is good cook.”
Some past Caps players have assimilated slowly to the NHL and U.S. culture, perhaps to the detriment of their games. Kuznetsov may be acculturated by a week from Thursday. He says he can’t wait to be coached “by the best in the world” so he can learn because “I am smart player.”
Except for learning to insert the article “a,” it’s hard to know where he’s behind the curve. His model: “Wayne Gretzky, 100 percent, the best.”
Projections about talented young players transitioning from the KHL to the NHL are precarious. Ovechkin was even better than the Caps hoped, but plenty of young Russian guns have jammed. How do you transform your game from skating in circles on a big rink in a league where there are few fights and no goons to a slashing end-to-end style of hockey where you’ll be crushed into the boards and egged to fight? Can Kuznetsov make the jump?
“Do you want me to be serious or funny?” he said, ready to take the puck in either direction. “I’m ready to play hard hockey. I am not scared.”