One of the top prospects in the world for the past few years, Kuznetsov agreed to an entry-level contract Saturday with the Capitals. General manager George McPhee said the plan is to put him in the lineup Monday night against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
He acknowledged that he's throwing the youngster into a tough spot.
"This is going to be a very difficult time to step into this League at this time of year," McPhee said at a press conference before the Capitals' game against the Phoenix Coyotes on Saturday night. "This is a darn good League, and these are like playoff games right now."
Elliotte Friedman of CBC reported it is a two-year contract. Kuznetsov will be at Kettler Capitals Iceplex for a media availability Sunday.
Kuznetsov was considered one of the top prospects in the 2010 NHL Draft, but his name was not called among the top 25 picks in part because teams were unsure if and when he would play in the League. Washington scooped him up at No. 26.
After nearly four years of waiting, Kuznetsov is finally in Washington.
"It's kind of like seeing the Loch Ness Monster when he walked in; we've heard of you but we haven't seen you," McPhee said. "And there he was, and I found it hard to believe he was standing there after all this, so it's a pretty neat feeling this kid's in the fold. He's a pretty darn good player."
Kuznetsov gained notoriety in Washington for dazzling at a summer orientation camp, and across North America for two sterling performances at the IIHF World Junior Championship. He had four goals and 11 points in the 2011 WJC, including three assists in the third period of the gold-medal game to help Russia come back from 3-0 down to defeat Canada 5-3.
Kuznetsov was even better in 2012. Though Russia lost to Sweden in the gold-medal game, he finished the tournament with six goals and 13 points, including a hat trick and an assist to knock out Canada in the semifinals.
He was a top player in the Kontinental Hockey League, where his accomplishments as an 18- and 19-year-old player in Russia's top league rivaled what past phenoms Pavel Bure and Alex Ovechkin accomplished.
Kuznetsov totaled 36 goals and 72 points in the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons for Traktor Chelyabinsk. Combined with his WJC performances, he looked like a future NHL superstar and the consensus top player in the world not playing in the NHL. In two seasons at the same age, Ovechkin had 26 goals and 50 points for Dynamo Moscow and Bure had 46 goals (35 as a 19-year-old) and 70 points for CSKA Moscow.
When the Capitals drafted Kuznetsov, McPhee said the player expressed his intention to play two more years in the KHL before joining the club. After those two seasons, he looked primed for an NHL debut, but instead he re-upped with Traktor for two more seasons.
Kuznetsov said he wanted to focus on making the Russian team for the 2014 Sochi Olympics, but he has struggled through an injury-plagued 2013-14 season. He was left off the Russia team that was upset in the Olympic quarterfinals by Finland, and Traktor failed to make the KHL playoffs.
Kuznetsov had his KHL contract terminated earlier this week and started making plans to finally come to North America to join the Capitals, a team desperate to find a way into the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
"When we first drafted him, I really thought that he could play for us, if not right away, within a year, and I told him that," McPhee said. "He mentioned at that time that he felt he needed two years in the KHL. ... So we get through the two years and then he signed a new deal for two more years and that was hard on us, but recently things have picked up.
"I went over to meet with him early in the year and he indicated that he was coming, so that was the first thing: 'Are you going to come this year?' And he said yes."
Blessed with skill, creativity and panache, Kuznetsov still has the potential to become a star in the NHL. He does not lack confidence, as Capitals fans saw during the rookie camp he attended in 2010 when he celebrated a scrimmage goal at the edge of Braden Holtby's crease, earning a stiff cross-check in the process. His charismatic on-ice personality made him a foil for hockey fans across Canada during the 2012 WJC.
Kuznetsov had a strong regular season in 2012-13 for Traktor, but fizzled a bit during the 2013 playoffs. His production dropped to eight goals and 21 points in 31 games this season, and not making the Olympic team was another hit to his status as a top prospect.
The Capitals would certainly welcome a spark from Kuznetsov. They've lost three straight games and been outplayed in the past two. Washington began Saturday three points back of the second wild-card slot in the Eastern Conference and four points back of third place in the Metropolitan Division. Eight of the Capitals' next 10 games are against teams in the top eight of their respective conference.
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