Updated 8 p.m.: After nearly four years of waiting, General Manager George McPhee could barely believe it Saturday night when Evgeny Kuznetsov finally arrived at Verizon Center to sign his entry-level contract with the Washington Capitals.
“It’s kind of like seeing the Loch Ness Monster when he walked in,” McPhee said. “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. It’s a pretty neat feeling that this kid is in the fold, he’s a pretty darn good player.”
Kuznetsov, 21, signed a two-year, entry-level contract that is believed to have an annual base salary of $900,000 – the maximum allowed under the collective bargaining agreement – and could be in the lineup as early as Monday when the Capitals host rival Pittsburgh. He is scheduled to skate at the team’s practice facility Sunday at 8 a.m, on what is an off day for the rest of the team.
Kuznetsov’s arrival ends a long quest to bring the highly-touted forward, widely considered one of the top prospects in the world, to North America that lasted longer than the Capitals ever anticipated when they drafted him 26th overall in 2010.
While they knew he wouldn’t move to the NHL immediately, when Kuznetsov signed a two-year contract in the KHL in 2012 it delayed Washington’s hopes until the process finally accelerated this week.
After his hometown KHL team, Traktor Chelyabinsk, played its final regular season game Tuesday having failed to qualify for the playoffs, Kuznetsov reached an agreement with the team to void the remainder of his KHL contract that would have otherwise run through April 30. The formal release from the KHL allowed him to sign an NHL contract with the Capitals.
Over the past five seasons with Traktor, Kuznetsov was named a KHL all-star twice and recorded 78 goals and 167 points over 251 regular season and playoff games. Even though he has that amount of professional experience, McPhee isn’t entirely sure how to gauge Kuznetsov’s development at this stage and wanted to temper expectations for him.
“I don’t know whether it’s made him better or worse to be honest with you, the time there,” McPhee said. “This is going to be a very difficult time to step into this league at this time of year. This is a darn good league and this is like playoff games right now.”
McPhee cited the smaller NHL ice size and up-and-down style of play, as opposed to a more circling, East-West type of attack in Europe, as some of the biggest adjustments Kuznetsov will need to make along with a potential position switch.
A left-handed shot, Kuznetsov usually played right wing in the KHL but given Coach Adam Oates’s preference that players skate on their strong side and Washington’s lack of depth at left wing, he will likely undergo a move not unlike Alex Ovechkin’s shift from left wing to right last season.
While McPhee acknowledged doesn’t know Kuznetsov’s full potential at the NHL level, he doesn’t have any qualms burning the first year of the freshly-signed contract because he believes that the forward’s overall skill level will ultimately allow him to thrive.
“His hockey sense is really outstanding. He’s a creative player, can score goals or distribute the puck or make things happen,” McPhee said. “The construction of our team now is we’ve got big wingers and guys who can control the wall and everything else I wanted some skill guys in the mix. A [Mikhail] Grabovski or a Kuznetsov to sort of connect the dots with the big guys.”