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After four-year wait, Kuznetsov joins Capitals

by Adam Vingan

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Ever since the Washington Capitals selected forward Evgeny Kuznetsov at No. 26 in the 2010 NHL Draft, the 21-year-old has taken on an almost mythical aura.

As Kuznetsov dazzled in the KHL and at various World Junior Championships, highlights of his most sensational goals and performances were passed around Washington's fan base as if they were folk tales, his burgeoning legend growing exponentially.

That awe-inspiring feeling was not lost on the Capitals' brain trust when Kuznetsov arrived at Verizon Center on Saturday to sign his entry-level contract.

"It's kind of like seeing the Loch Ness Monster when he walked in," general manager George McPhee said. "We've heard of you, but we haven't seen you and there he was. I found it hard to believe he was standing there after all this."

For the first time as an official member of the Capitals, Kuznetsov stepped onto the ice at the team's practice facility Sunday morning, signaling the end of his nearly four-year journey to Washington.

"Any hockey player wants to play in the NHL, wants to win the [Stanley] Cup," Kuznetsov said, wearing his No. 92 jersey. "It's my dream, [to] play in NHL. I'm ready, 100 percent. I want to play."

When the Capitals drafted Kuznetsov, they did so with the understanding that the young Russian would not immediately make the transition to the League.

McPhee believed that Kuznetsov, blessed with natural ability augmented by high-end skill, was ready to contribute at the NHL level within a year. Yet Kuznetsov elected to re-sign with Traktor Chelyabinsk in 2012, further delaying his long-awaited arrival.

Much to the Capitals' pleasure, Kuznetsov cemented his status as one of the top prospects in the world as they watched from afar. He impressed in consecutive World Junior Championships, assisting on three of Russia's five unanswered third-period goals in its 5-3 comeback victory against Canada in the 2011 gold-medal game.

The following year, Kuznetsov served as captain and earned MVP honors on the silver medal-winning team.

During the 2010-11 and 2011-12 KHL seasons, Kuznetsov had 36 goals for Traktor, 10 more than Capitals teammate Alex Ovechkin did in two seasons at the same age with Dynamo Moscow.

Yet Kuznetsov struggled through an injury-plagued 2013-14 season, which was made even more difficult by his exclusion from Russia's 25-man roster for the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Traktor also failed to reach the postseason.

"Not [the] best season," Kuznetsov said of his time in the KHL this year. "It's a new year for me."

That new year may begin as soon as Monday, when Kuznetsov is expected to make his highly anticipated League debut against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Kuznetsov projects as a top-six forward and will likely skate on the left wing. McPhee and Capitals coach Adam Oates have constantly tempered expectations for Kuznetsov, who they believe will need time to acclimate himself to the more physical, north-south NHL style.

Kuznetsov, however, does not see much of an adjustment period.

"If you good hockey player it doesn't matter where you play, big ice, small ice," Kuznetsov said, adding that he has experience playing all three forward positions. "I'm ready to play hard hockey. I'm not scared."

Kuznetsov's arrival coincides with the Capitals' dogged pursuit of their seventh straight Stanley Cup Playoff berth.

With 17 games remaining, Washington is one point out of the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference and three points behind the Philadelphia Flyers for third place in the Metropolitan Division. For Kuznetsov and the Capitals, a swift transition is imperative.

Though it would be too much to ask of the dynamic Kuznetsov to single-handedly carry the Capitals into the postseason, he is emboldened by the challenge.

"Every hockey player, every guy on the team wants to win the Cup, wants to play [in the] playoffs," Kuznetsov said. "If you want to win, we need the practice, we need the game. That whole team wants to win. I watch every guy [Saturday against the Phoenix Coyotes], everyone wants to win every game, every time, every minute."

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