The Capitals plan to ease Evgeny Kuznetsov into the NHL as much as they can Monday night, starting him on the fourth line against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Kuznetsov took line rushes in the morning skate on the left wing of a unit with Jay Beagle and Tom Wilson. As tempting as it might be for the Capitals to throw Kuznetsov into the top six, where he’s projected to be at some point, immediately Coach Adam Oates believes a limited initial role is the best course for the 21-year-old, given that he hasn’t taken part in a full practice or been truly immersed in the system or NHL style of game.
Oates also wants to make sure that, in addition to monitoring Kuznetsov’s progress, he doesn’t send the wrong message to the rest of the team.
“I think it makes sense to start him on that line no matter what in fairness to the other guys. Obviously everybody’s excited to see him for all the reasons that you guys know but for the team he’s got to earn his stripes,” Oates said. “I think starting him there — he’s into the team, the system and not put him in a situation where he might make a mistake right off the hop and get off on the wrong foot. I think it makes sense to do it that way.”
But even Oates, who saw Kuznetsov play two games in Russia last summer, is excited to see how he assimilates in the NHL because no one knows quite what to expect.
“I’m anxious to see him evolve into a player. He’s obviously got great skills, good hands, explosive speed,” Oates said. “But in saying all that the hockey is grinding hockey, it’s up and down your wing. You’ve got to wait for your opportunity and that’s going to be a transition for him for sure.”
>> Brooks Laich, who told reporters Saturday he is not 100 percent because of his lingering groin problem, did not take part in the morning skate and is a game-time decision against the Penguins. If Laich is available to play, expect him to skate on the top line with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.
Over the past week, Laich has been on the ice with his teammates outside of a game just once – the morning skate in Philadelphia on March. 5 – and has played in two of the three games sitting out the March 6 contest at Boston.
“I think he knows his body, is in great shape so I think we can handle that at least for a while,” Oates said. “I think at some point you’ve got to come to practice but it is what it is right now.”
Oates saw a similar situation during the 1993-94 season in Boston when Cam Neely, limited by knee problems, rarely ever practiced but played 49 games and wound up having a 50-goal year.
“It’s incredible what [Neely] did based on that and there were old enough guys around him to allow it to happen as well. I think we’re the same here,” Oates said. “Even though we all know why sometimes as a player you’re like, ‘Well, you’re not out here grinding with us every day.’ That’s hard for everybody but I think we’re mature enough to deal with that.”
>> Mikhail Grabovski has been placed on injured reserve retroactive to Feb. 27 at Florida when he re-injured his sprained left ankle. The team would not disclose whether Grabovski is on regular or long-term injured reserve – only the latter provides salary cap relief.
>> Projected lineups for both teams:
Chris Kunitz – Sidney Crosby – Lee Stempniak
Jussi Jokinen – Evgeni Malkin – James Neal
Taylot Pyatt – Brandon Sutter – Joe Vitale
Tanner Glass – Marcel Goc – Craig Adams
Brooks Orpik – Olli Maatta
Rob Scuderi – Matt Niskanen
Simon Despres – Deryk Engelland
Jeff Zatkoff will start, Marc-Andre Fleury will back up.