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Two Russian prospects adjust to North American life

by Tal Pinchevsky

When Russia won its second IIHF World Championship in three years last May, the gold-medal squad featured some of the NHL's biggest names, including Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Sergei Bobrovsky.

But for the two youngest players on that roster, Evgeny Kuznetsov of the Washington Capitals and Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Worlds were the final victory before their careers, and effectively their lives, changed.

Two of the world's top hockey prospects, representing the future of Russian hockey, are now entering their first full seasons in North America, a crucial step in their respective careers.

"It's a totally different culture. It's obviously a big adjustment," Kuznetsov said. "The language barrier is the biggest thing."

When he arrives at Washington's training camp, the 22-year-old forward will already be among the world's most decorated young players. In addition to his gold medal at the 2014 World Championship, he won one at the 2012 World Championship, one day after his 20th birthday. His three assists in the gold-medal game at the 2011 IIHF World Junior Championship gave Russia its first win at the tournament in eight years.

He also served as team captain and was named tournament MVP at the 2012 World Juniors, when he won silver playing alongside Vasilevskiy, who led the tournament in save percentage and shutouts despite being the youngest goalie in the tournament and the youngest player on his team.

After being taken with the 26th pick in the 2010 NHL Draft by Washington, Kuznetsov's profile only grew in the Kontinental Hockey League. He was Traktor Chelyabinsk's top scorer for three straight seasons and led the team to the conference final twice.

Vasilevskiy made his KHL debut last season and was an instant hit.

As a 19-year-old, the 19th pick in the 2012 NHL Draft took Russia by storm. He was a standout for Ufa Salavat Yulaev, leading the club to the conference final before losing to eventual champion Metallurg Magnitogorsk, and earned the Alexei Cherepanov Award as the league's top rookie.

By the time the 2013-14 KHL season ended, it was clear each player was ready to take the next step in his career.

"It's a very interesting season for me. I'm very happy I signed my contract with Tampa. I worked hard every day to be better and start my season," Vasilevskiy said. "Here it's a higher level of hockey than back in Russia. It's very impressive. It's good for me."

Kuznetsov and Vasilevskiy are likely to take very different routes to the NHL. With goaltenders typically experiencing a significantly steeper learning curve and Ben Bishop already established as the Lightning's No. 1 goalie, Vasilevskiy is likely to play this season with Tampa Bay's American Hockey League affiliate in Syracuse.

Kuznetsov has the advantage of having played 17 games with the Capitals after being hampered by injuries and missing the KHL playoffs last season. He's already being penciled in as a contributor on a Capitals team that replaced its coach and general manager after missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2013-14.

"I talked to him about coming in and playing center, which he did more in Europe than he did here," Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. "He's got a really high skill level. He's going to be adjusting. I think he can really be a strong candidate for that second-line spot and really take some heat off the [Nicklas] Backstrom spot on the top line. I think he'll be able to make those plays."

The biggest adjustment for each player will be the NHL's smaller ice surface, which means less time and space than the two young Russians grew accustomed to in Europe. That's especially true for Kuznetsov, who the Capitals hope can add some muscle to his long, slender frame. But just as challenging as the NHL's rink dimensions will be the culture shock of living in the United States.

Kuznetsov should adjust more easily. He spent much of his summer in Washington working with the Capitals' training staff and will be living in an apartment with his wife, Anastasia. Vasilevskiy, 20, has less experience in North America, but his transition should be eased by the presence of numerous Russians in Tampa Bay's prospect pipeline, including Vladislav Namestnikov, Artem Sergeev and Nikita Kucherov.

"I think he'll be fine. It's obviously a little different, but he's a great player and he's going to adjust fine," said Namestnikov, who befriended Vasilevskiy at the Lightning's development camp. "He's an amazing athlete. To be that big and that athletic for a goalie is unreal. I think he's going to be the real deal."

The more outgoing of the two, Kuznetsov is reticent to speak English. But he did have one English phrase perfectly memorized when asked about his hopes for the upcoming season: "I want to win the Cup."

Vasilevskiy, on the other hand, seems more at ease speaking English, and he grew particularly excited when discussing his experience at the World Championship.

"It was very good experience for me. I played with great players who play in the NHL. They have super skills, super shot, everything," he said. "[Playing with] Bobrovsky and [Anton] Khudobin was good experience. I see these guys and they teach me. It's so good."

Vasilevskiy is expected to compete for the starting job in Syracuse with Kristers Gudlevskis. His limited time in Tampa Bay has been confined thus far to development camp. The goaltender hasn't had any opportunities to sample the area's beaches, but he hopes a strong training camp can extend his stay down south.

"I've never been in Tampa on beach, just practice," Vasilevskiy said. "But I think maybe the sun I can see. We'll see."

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