EDMONTON — Three games into his second NHL season, still classified as a rookie by league standards, Evgeny Kuznetsov sat inside the Washington Capitals’ locker room last week and considered the unfamiliar idea of patience. Back home in Russia, the 22-year-old forward starred for Traktor Chelyabinsk, skating big minutes. But once he migrated midseason, joining Washington for 17 games in mid-March, digesting the drop in ice time took its toll.
“It’s big problem for me last season when I come,” Kuznetsov said, before pivoting to the present. “Right now, I understand. Give me six minutes or eight minutes. It doesn’t matter to me. All we need to do, win the game.”
With a new language to adopt and a new North American style to learn, Kuznetsov had encountered the reality of climbing another ladder from the bottom rung. Through five games in 2014-15, his ice time has oscillated from fewer than seven minutes in the opener against Montreal to more than 16 in last week’s blowout over New Jersey.
Centering an inexperienced fourth line — the four skaters used there currently boast a combined 66 NHL games — Kuznetsov has been deployed in the offensive zone against weaker competition in an effort to continue his development. The Capitals have remained steadfast in their vision for Kuznetsov, keeping him at center even after a recent injury to Brooks Laich, which vacated a wing spot on a higher line.
“You think you’re getting more minutes and maybe he’s playing a different role, but it actually disrupts him,” Coach Barry Trotz said Tuesday, after Washington practiced at a local rink near Edmonton. “You take him out of his comfort zone, then they get cautious, then things might not go really well. I just want to keep it stable for a young player as long as I can. That’s my goal. The guy that’s probably lost some minutes is Kuzy. His minutes have fluctuated. That’s all on me. Kuzy’s doing fine. I don’t have any problems with him.”
In fact, Trotz added, each tweak the Capitals requested of Kuznetsov has been changed without hesitation or complaint. During training camp, as 19-year-old Andre Burakovsky ascended into the second-line center role, Kuznetsov found himself relegated. So he immersed himself in video, learning the differences between Russian hockey and the North American game, picking up English phrases that could help him understand teammates.
Early into Kuznetsov’s tenure with Washington, he moved in with captain Alex Ovechkin, a fellow Russian whose presence helped cushion the landing. Once Trotz arrived this summer, the new bench boss tabbed Ovechkin to help relay the organizational plan to Kuznetsov, which projected Kuznetsov as a cornerstone miles down the road, regardless of his minutes in the present.
“I’m looking for a guy like Kuzy to have a real strong career for the next 15 years or so,” Trotz said. ‘What happens here in the next two weeks, or a month from now, will have what I think very little bearing on his long-term success here.”
Kuznetsov has recorded three assists in five games, including two on the second power-play unit. There, he mirrors the role of top-line center Nicklas Backstrom along the right half-wall, controlling the puck and looking for passing lines. And while Trotz expressed a desire to give his fourth line more minutes — particularly Kuznetsov — he invoked Backstrom as an example of whom the Capitals hope Kuznetsov can become.
“I’m really happy with Kuzy,” Trotz said. ‘He’s going to be big-time at center ice. If we can get our center ice in the future to be Backstrom, Kuznetsov, Burakovsky, whoever, that’s pretty good center ice. That’s where we need to be, is strong up the middle as well.”
Back inside the locker room at Washington’s practice facility last week, Kuznetsov shrugged his shoulders. Fourth line? First line? Didn’t matter. The Capitals were unbeaten in regulation then and still are, the only Eastern Conference team left that can claim such a feat. For Kuznetsov, this occupied him far more than ice time or usage.
“I understand,” he said. “If I play better every game, coach [will] give me more time. This is life, you know? This is hockey life. Play good, get more time. I don’t think about this. Every game we want to win. That’s it for us. It doesn’t matter who score, right? If you watch history, you win the Cup, right, nobody remember who scored. Everybody remember who scored, who win the game.”