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Kuznetsov could be next great Russian to join Caps

by Mike G. Morreale
There's little doubt Evgeny Kuznetsov has all the makings of a future star in the NHL.

The question, though, is when does that future begin?

The Washington Capitals, who were thrilled to select the talented Russian forward with the 26th pick of the 2010 Entry Draft, hope it happens much sooner than later.

"Evgeny has always indicated to us when we interviewed him prior to the draft that he would likely spend two more years in the KHL in order to get stronger and more mature," Washington Capitals general manager George McPhee told "We said that was fine. Hopefully it can be done with a contract and he'll be playing in the NHL next year."

How special was Kuznetsov prior to draft?

Washington Capitals general manager George McPhee can vividly recall sitting down with his scouting team prior to the 2010 Entry Draft and listening to their glowing reviews of Russian prospect Evgeny Kuznetsov.

At the time, the flashy forward was considered a late first-round or early second-round pick. With the 26th pick, that made him a target for the Caps.

"They thought he was a very talented player and that he would be going higher in the draft if not for some teams' reluctance to draft Russian players," McPhee said. "They all felt he might be sitting in that area where we were drafting and if he was in that area, we would have to take him. Obviously, when our pick came up, we were more than happy to do it."

With that 26th pick, the Caps selected Kuznetsov, and two years later, it looks like an outstanding choice.

Capitals Director of Amateur Scouting Ross Mahoney had Kuznetsov high on his draft board. His potential, according to the veteran scout, was very good.

"We started watching him closely when he was a 16-year-old, but at 17, he was already a strong skater, showed good hockey sense and a high level of skill and was a leader," Mahoney told "He possessed that deadly combination of speed, skill and hockey sense. We were glad to get him."

-- Mike G. Morreale
Capitals Director of Amateur Scouting Ross Mahoney believes Kuznetsov is on the right track to being NHL ready.

"Until you get to training camp and test yourself out and see where you're at, you just don't know," Mahoney told "The advantage he has right now is that he's playing against men in the KHL and some of our other players, like (Alex) Ovechkin, (Alexander) Semin and (Nicklas) Backstrom did the same thing when they joined us at 20 years old.

"They were all playing against men for a couple of years in the elite leagues in Europe. He (Kuznetsov) looks like he's pretty close to being ready, but we'll see what happens at the next training camp."

The 6-foot, 172-pound Kuznetsov was named the Most Valuable Player at the recently completed World Junior Championship, serving as team captain and helping lead Russia to a silver medal with 6 goals and a tournament-best 13 points in seven games.

"I think it was pretty evident that he has a high level of skill, hockey sense and skating ability," Mahoney said.

He also was a force at the 2011 WJC, when he helped Russia win the gold medal with 4 goals and 11 points in seven games. In three WJC tournament appearances, Kuznetsov has 12 goals and 26 points.

"He played in this tournament the way we were hoping he would play," McPhee said. "He made a difference, for sure, and delivered in the big games. He's a little bigger (this year), and with respect to his game, still a good offensive player. Whenever he does come over to North America, he'll have to learn to play the North American game, but we obviously have a lot of good things to work with."

Goran Stubb, the NHL's director of European scouting, feels Kuznetsov is the best young player currently starring in the Kontinental Hockey League.

"He's a world-class talent and he's ready for the NHL," Stubb told "He has great acceleration and overall top speed. He's creative, can score and pass. He's excellent with the puck and scores the big goals. In my opinion, Evgeny is a complete package."

So what would Kuznetsov need to show Washington's coaching staff at next training camp in order to earn an NHL roster spot?

"Getting strength is important, and he has gotten stronger, but that's something he'll have to work at," Mahoney said. "Also, playing away from the puck and being more attentive to that. Those younger skilled players have a bit of a learning curve to play a little better defensively. Sometimes they aren't asked to do that at a younger age because they are some of the more skilled players on their teams."

McPhee agrees.

"Most young players have to learn the NHL is a League that demands that you play both ends of the rink," he said.

"He's a world-class talent and he's ready for the NHL. He has great acceleration and overall top speed. He's creative, can score and pass. He's excellent with the puck and scores the big goals. In my opinion, Evgeny is a complete package."
-- Goran Stubb

Kuznetsov was a highlight waiting to happen each time he touched the puck at this year's WJC. His incredible spin-o-rama pass from inside the left circle to feed a teammate barreling down the slot with 32 seconds remaining in the third period of the gold-medal game had game-winner written all over it, but Sweden goalie Johan Gustafsson had other plans.

Despite that, Kuznetsov continually wowed -- and sometimes irked -- those in attendance at Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary with his offensive sizzle and emotional goal celebrations. After scoring his third goal in an eventual 6-5 victory against Canada in the semifinals, he skated toward his bench and did a belly flop on the ice, an act of gamesmanship that certainly didn't win over the fans in Calgary.

"I love the enthusiasm, but I think he'll have to temper that down a bit," Mahoney said. "You have to remember, they're kids and really excited to score, and sometimes the celebration goes over the top. I'd like to see him work hard and be successful, set up or score goals, but you don't have to celebrate too much."

His performance did win over teammates and coach Valeri Bragin, who praised Kuznetsov for an inspiring performance against Canada.

Kuznetsov has spent the last three seasons with the KHL's Traktor Chelyabinsk. In 32 games prior to the WJC, he had 12 goals, 24 points and a plus-5 rating this season.

McPhee doesn't see there being any issue with Kuznetsov making the proper adjustments to the North American game.

"He's a smart enough player … he'll pick it up quickly," he said.

Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale
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