While the Olympic men’s hockey tournament doesn’t wrap up until Feb. 23, and the Capitals don’t play a game again until Feb. 27, the players who didn’t travel to Sochi will reconvene in Arlington on Wednesday to begin practicing once again. It will be a mini training camp of sorts as the Capitals gear up for the final 23 games of the regular season. And one of the biggest questions ahead of that stretch run is whether the Capitals will have Evgeny Kuznetsov in the fold.
While the team repeatedly declines to comment on the status of the 2010 first-round draft pick, all signs point to Kuznetsov finally coming to North America once his Kontinental Hockey League contract expires at the end of this season.
In a January interview with R-Sport, Kuznetsov insisted that the 2013-14 season would be his last in the KHL and that he intended to keep his word to the Capitals. He also tweeted, and subsequently deleted, a photo of an e-mail that included his U.S. visa application in January, which Russian Machine documented.
On Feb. 9, the day the NHL’s Olympic break began, Capitals owner Ted Leonsis hinted about Kuznetsov’s expected arrival as well. From Ted’s Take:
“And perhaps we will add a young player who was a high draft pick into the lineup at some time too after the break. Time will tell.”
There appears to be light at the end of a nearly four-year tunnel for Kuznetsov, whom the Capitals selected 26th overall in 2010. The team knew then he wouldn’t make the jump to the NHL immediately, but Kuznetsov went on to sign another two-year contract in the KHL back in 2012. The timeline for when that contract concludes depends on Kuznetsov’s KHL season.
His KHL team, Traktor Chelyabinsk, currently holds the final playoff berth in that league’s Eastern Conference with four games remaining. The KHL regular season, which is on hiatus for the Sochi Olympics, ends on March 4, but should Traktor reach the playoffs the earliest Kuznetsov’s season would end is mid-March.
While Kuznetsov’s arrival, whenever it might occur, has been long-awaited, it’s impossible to know what to expect of the 21-year-old, offensively gifted forward when he arrives in the NHL.
He’s spent four years in the KHL playing primarily as a wing. But the Capitals drafted Kuznetsov largely because of his ability to play center during his final junior season in 2009 and General Manager George McPhee said last year he expects to try the young forward at center. Transitioning to the NHL is a challenge for any young player, let alone one that may bounce between positions.
Then there are the injuries. Kuznetsov has shown to have dynamic playmaking ability and offensive instincts, but his professional career has been sidetracked by numerous injuries. He has undergone several shoulder surgeries, the most recent on his left shoulder in September 2013, and he also missed time with a left leg injury this season.
Like any prospect, Kuznetsov is a mix of potential and uncertainty. If he does indeed join the Capitals this spring, though, the team can finally begin determining where he’ll fit in the lineup and how he might progress in the NHL.