Capitals top 5 plays of the week: 3-4
For the record, an Evgeny Kuznetsov nameplate has not yet been installed in the Capitals dressing room at Kettler Capitals Iceplex.
But from the conversations emanating from that locker room on Tuesday, it might not be long before the talented forward makes his long-awaited debut for the Capitals.
“I just talked to him a couple minutes ago and he said, ‘We’ll see, because we don’t know what’s going on,'” Capitals right wing Alex Ovechkin said. “We just wait.’”
Although he is technically under contract until April 30, Kuznetsov became available to the Caps when his KHL team, Traktor Chelyabinsk, was eliminated from the playoffs on Tuesday in its final game of the regular season.
The KHL conducts a losers’ bracket playoff but it appears the Capitals are trying to negotiate Kuznetsov’s release from his KHL contract and sign him to his first NHL contract.
Under the terms of an NHL entry level contract, Kuznetsov would carry a cap hit of $900,000, and with defenseman Jack Hillen coming off long-term injury, the Caps would need to eliminate at least one player contract to make room for the 21-year-old Kuznetsov, who reportedly has been granted a U.S. passport.
“There are so many things,” Capitals coach Adam Oates said, “that have to happen.”
Ovechkin already has said he would open his house to Kuznetsov and his wife and on Tuesday the Capitals’ 28-year-old captain sounded as if Kuznetsov would be wearing a Caps jersey before too long.
“I don’t know how he’s going to play on the small ice, to be honest with you,” Ovechkin said. “He’s a skill guy and he’s probably going to need some time to realize what’s going to happen, but we’re going to help him.
“I think when you’re 21 years old you have to understand we’re fighting for playoffs and every point counts. He just have to play his game and help us. He’s good, a skill guy.”
In 30 games for Traktor this season Kuznetsov recorded seven goals and 13 assists and was a minus-9. His season was disrupted by shoulder surgery in September and a knee injury in December.
Oates has some familiarity with Kuznetsov. On his Russian visit with Ovechkin last summer Oates spent a few days with Kuznetsov, who was taken by the Caps with the 26th pick of the 2010 NHL draft.
“He speaks great English,” Oates said. “I was shocked at how Westernized he was.”
Oates said that when Kuznetsov arrives he will bring him along slowly, but with Brooks Laich sidelined with recurring groin issues, it would not be a surprise to see him on a top line with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.
“Obviously, his reputation is very good, but you’re going to the NHL and he’s never played over here,” Oates said. “I don’t want to get everybody too pumped up before he gets a chance to get acclimated into the league.”
Despite the optimism surrounding Kuznetsov’s potential arrival, there was also a measure of skepticism in the Caps locker room.
“How are we going to fit him under the cap?” wondered goaltender Michal Neuvirth.
“Honestly, I don’t care about a guy who’s not in the dressing room until he’s in this dressing room,” right wing Troy Brouwer said. “If he comes and he can help our hockey club he’s more than welcome here. Until he shows up and is here he’s none of my concern.”