NHL.com's weekly Q&A feature called "Five Questions With ..." runs every Tuesday. We talk to key figures in the game today and ask them questions to gain insight into their lives, careers and the latest news.
BOCA RATON, Fla. -- George McPhee saw the crowd gathering at Kettler Capitals Iceplex at 8 a.m. Sunday and was taken aback by the buzz the Washington Capitals fans and media were creating on what can typically be a lazy morning for most people.
Evgeny Kuznetsov was taking the ice for the first time with the Capitals after signing his contract Saturday. It was a moment nearly four years in the making.
The Capitals drafted Kuznetsov with the No. 26 pick at the 2010 NHL Draft. McPhee knew the star Russian teenager wouldn't be coming to Washington then or for the next few years, but he never thought it would take until March 9, 2014, for Kuznetsov to finally arrive.
"It's just nice to have him," a relieved McPhee said Monday from the NHL general managers' meeting. "It's been a long time without him."
Long enough that McPhee appears to get emotional in talking about the process that it took to get Kuznetsov to D.C., a process that included many nights wondering if the deal was ever going to happen and a moment to exhale when he finally showed up Saturday.
McPhee spoke to NHL.com about the Kuznetsov saga and more for an exclusive Q&A.
Here are Five Questions with…George McPhee:
Can you take me through the process of getting Evgeny Kuznetsov into Washington, from the time you drafted him to the red tape you fought through to the emotions involved?
"Well, we knew he was going to spend the first two years playing in Russia. He felt like he needed that with his development. We've gone through this with a few other players, whether it's Nicklas Backstrom or Ovi [Alex Ovechkin] or Marcus Johansson. In all of those instances, we felt they could play, if not right away, within a year. We told this player the same thing. We thought Nick Backstrom could play right away, but he said, 'I need another year.' So we said, 'By all means do it.' Ovi got the benefit of the lockout. Johansson, we thought, was ready after a year, and he was. So we told this player you probably need a year, but if you really believe you need two, then go ahead. It's when he stayed for the next two years after that that hurt because it hurts your planning and your projections. You don't get really talented players very often and you don't get them at a reasonable price very often. Rather than getting locked into a free agent long term, which we didn't want to do, we started to make trades where we traded young players for older players like [Cody] Eakin and a second for [Mike] Ribeiro, and [Filip] Forsberg. We don't like trading young players for older players, but you're trying to help the team on the ice now. That's not our style, but we had to go that way for a little bit. Now that's over, and we're hoping he comes in and has an impact."
We're doing this interview before Kuznetsov plays in his first game Monday, so as we talk we don't know what he'll do in the game. But what are reasonable expectations to be placed on him for the rest of this season?
"I honestly don't know. I don't know how this player is going to react to this. This is the best league in the world, and it feels like we're already in the playoffs, so this is not going to be an easy adjustment. It's not unlike going through what we've been through with other players. I remember first watching Ovi in his first preseason or Nicky Backstrom, wondering if they were going to be as good as we hoped. In those instances they were better than our expectations. We have our fingers crossed that this player is going to be a good player for us and help, but it's a tough time of the year to come in."
When you saw Kuznetsov the other day as he came in to sign his contract, what are the differences you noticed about him from the day you drafted him until now?
"Well he's a bigger kid. He's more mature. He's certainly confident. And his English is actually a little bit better. But this process in the last week, I was just relieved to see him because I didn't think that we would. There were so many things that had to fall into place last week that I just didn't believe all of them would fall into place, because any one of them would have knocked us out of the box. But they did.
"When I got the text one morning, it was real early, that we got the signed release from him, that was the big one. We actually got a signed release from the club, and that was the big one. Now we had to make sure the visa works, get him out of there, get him on a plane, get him through customs. I started having a good feeling Saturday morning when I heard he was on the first leg of the trip. I got the next one when he cleared customs in Washington and I could finally exhale."
Now you mentioned it's a tough time for him to come in, but it's been a tough time for your team as a whole. What has to jell here in the next five weeks for you guys to get into the playoffs?
"We just have to play better. The pieces are there, and we've done it in the past. We've been in this position before and had terrific runs, so we have that frame of reference that it can be done."
Are you surprised at all that you're in the position you're in at this point in the season?
"I'm not surprised at all that we're in a playoff battle, fighting for a playoff spot. It's a terrific league, a terrific conference, and we're in a good division. I thought right from the start of the season it's going to come down to the last week in this division."