Early Sunday morning, roughly 50 people gathered around the edges of the Capitals’ practice rink in Arlington just to catch a glimpse of Evgeny Kuznetsov.
He was doing nothing more than drills with coaches, but after a nearly four-year wait, the highly touted forward prospect was finally in Washington preparing for his NHL debut, which could come as soon as Monday night against the Penguins.
“It’s kind of like seeing the Loch Ness Monster when he walked in,” general manager George McPhee said Saturday minutes after Kuznetsov officially signed his entry-level contract. “We’ve heard of you, but we haven’t seen you and there he was. I found it too hard to believe he was standing there after all this.”
Washington drafted Kuznetsov 26th overall in 2010 aware that the young Russian wanted to return to the KHL to continue his development. McPhee believed Kuznetsov would be ready to contribute at the NHL level within a year, but the 21-year-old elected to re-sign with Traktor Chelyabinsk in 2012, further delaying his long-awaited arrival.
Late last year, Kuznetsov indicated to McPhee that he would join the Capitals as soon as his season was over in Russia. With Traktor eliminated from postseason contention last week, the process to bring Kuznetsov stateside formally began.
“Any hockey player wants to play in the NHL, wants to win the [Stanley] Cup,” Kuznetsov said Sunday. “It’s my dream [to] play in NHL. I’m ready, 100 percent. I want to play.”
Kuznetsov is widely regarded as one of the best prospects in the world, possessing dynamic play-making ability with no shortage of offensive flair. He will surely bolster Washington’s forward depth, likely as a left wing in a top-six role.
McPhee and coach Adam Oates have tempered the enormous expectations surrounding Kuznetsov, who will need to adjust to the smaller ice surface and more physical, north-south nature of the NHL.
Realistically, they hope that Kuznetsov will provide the spark that will ignite the Capitals as they pursue a postseason berth with 17 games remaining. It is a challenge that Kuznetsov looks forward to taking on.
“Every hockey player, every guy on the team wants to win the Cup, wants to play [in the] playoffs,” he said. “If you want to win, we need the practice, we need the game. That whole team wants to win.”