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Kuznetsov has backing of Capitals following IIHF ban

'It's really important we support him no matter what,' Backstrom says of center

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Evgeny Kuznetsov's Washington Capitals teammates on Thursday pledged to support the 27-year-old center after he was suspended from international competition for four years by the International Ice Hockey Federation last month for testing positive for cocaine.

Kuznetsov voluntarily entered the Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program, run by the NHL and the NHL Players' Association, and though he has not been suspended by the League, he met with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman on Monday to discuss the situation. 

The Capitals said they are waiting for a decision from the NHL about whether Kuznetsov will be disciplined before making him available to the media, but he is expected to be on the ice for the first practice of training camp Friday.

"His mind is where he should [be] with training camp tomorrow," Washington center Nicklas Backstrom said. "It's very unfortunate what happened, but at the same time, for us as friends I think it's really important we support him no matter what, and we're going to fight this together as a family here."

Kuznetsov was tested May 26 at the 2019 IIHF World Championship in Slovakia, where he was playing for Russia.

"I have made the decision to accept this penalty," Kuznetsov said in a statement issued by the Capitals on Aug. 23 after the IIHF suspension was announced. "Representing my country has always been so close to my heart and something I take so much pride in. Not being able to put that sweater on for four years is very hard to take. I have disappointed so many people that are important to me, including my family, teammates and friends.

"From the first day I took the ice in D.C., the Washington Capitals organization and our fans have been nothing but great to me and my family. I feel absolutely terrible for letting you down. I realize that the only way I can win you back is to take ownership of my situation and my actions from this point forward."

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Washington captain Alex Ovechkin said he called Kuznetsov as soon as he heard about the positive drug test and IIHF suspension to let him know he was there to talk.

"I asked him if you need some help just to please let me know," Ovechkin said. "I'm sure lots of guys do the same thing. It doesn't matter if we play together or play on a different team. I think we have a good relationship to support each other in different situations."

General manager Brian MacLellan said he believes the situation could be a wake-up call for Kuznetsov, who is coming off an inconsistent 2018-19 season, when he had 72 points (21 goals, 51 assists) in 76 games and six points (one goal, five assists) in seven Stanley Cup Playoff games. That came after Kuznetsov helped Washington win the Stanley Cup in 2018 when he led the playoffs with 32 points (12 goals, 20 assists) in 24 games.

"I think he's aware that it's a big mistake in his mind, and he's remorse(ful)," MacLellan said. "He knows he made a mistake, and he wants to move on from it. He wants to take responsibility for it but also wants to move on."

MacLellan said part of moving on might include earning back the trust of his teammates.

"I think they want to be supportive," MacLellan said. "Also, I think they'd like to hear from him at some point, and he'll address the team and just talk about his situation. I think that would be an important step for the whole team to move forward."

But Capitals players said Kuznetsov doesn't have to address them. They have his back regardless.

"That's ultimately up to him," goalie Braden Holtby said. "Our job right now is we support him. Obviously, there's always consequences to actions. But the main thing we want to be there for [him] as teammates is to help him come through stronger, whether it's off the ice, on the ice, to support him to make himself and make our team stronger."

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