When the Capitals drafted 23-year old Evgeny Kuznetsov in 2010, when he was just 18, they envisioned that the talented young Russian would finish out his contract with Traktor Chelyabinsk, his hometown team, and then make the trip to America’s capital to begin his NHL career. However, Kuznetsov signed a three-year contract extension, delaying his North American career further. Caps fans grew anxious waiting for a player many called “the best not in the NHL”. Now, five years after being drafted, Kuznetsov has proven to be worth the wait. After Traktor failed to make the KHL playoffs, Kuznetsov made the long-awaited journey to Washington DC in March, 2014.
When he first arrived in Washington, Kuznetsov’s English was limited and in his first press conference, he had to use a translator. Now, a year and a half later, Kuznetsov speaks English much better, albeit with a thick accent. His transition to North American hockey has gone better than expected. After arriving, Kuznetsov played in 17 games, recording nine points; his first goal was scored in dramatic fashion.
In his first full season in Washington, Kuznetsov struggled out of the gate, still finding the pace of the NHL and smaller rink size difficult. At times, he was made a healthy scratch by head coach Barry Trotz, and often saw time on the fourth-line. Despite his slow start, Kuznetsov finished his rookie campaign with 37 points in 80 games. But as he played more, and became comfortable with the NHL’s fast pace, Kuznetsov’s confidence grew, and it culminated in his scoring the game-winning goal in Game 7 of the Caps’ first-round playoff series against the New York Islanders. His full potential was finally starting to show.
After signing a two-year contract this offseason, Kuznetsov has started the year red-hot, playing in place of number one center Nicklas Backstrom while Backstrom was injured. Although Backstrom has returned, Kuznetsov’s chemistry with Alex Ovechkin and TJ Oshie has propelled the Caps to a five-game winning streak; including his three-goal, two assist performance last night against the Edmonton Oilers.
Kuznetsov is second in the NHL with 11 points and he is currently on pace for a 35-goal, 120-point season, and while it’s unlikely he’ll reach those lofty numbers, it’s a good sign that Kuznetsov is fully confident in his game and his comfort with the North American game has allowed him to be a dominant force in the NHL.
Kuznetsov has finally arrived and at just 23-years old, his best years are still ahead. And for opponents of the Caps, that should be a scary thought.
By Michael Fleetwod