WASHNGTON -- When the Washington Capitals needed another center before the season started, coach Barry Trotz asked promising young forward Evgeny Kuznetsov.
Their top prospect played sparingly at center during his formative time in Russia, including a stint in the Kontinental Hockey League. Yet he eagerly accepted the challenge and has been key to Washington's late-season success.
"I know it's a little bit different [style of] hockey and a different mentality," Kuznetsov said. "I try to focus on the hockey."
Kuznetsov, 22, came to Washington in March 2014 after five seasons playing professionally in Russia. He had to adapt quickly to the smaller ice sheet and faster pace of North American hockey and had nine points in 17 games at the end of the 2013-14 season.
"He's getting more comfortable, and that shows," said forward Marcus Johansson, who has played center and wing with the Capitals. "He has more confidence out there, and that plays a big part when you play center and no matter what position you play. You can tell that he's getting more adjusted to it and especially more adjusted to smaller ice as well."
This season, Kuznetsov flirted with 40 points, including a strong finishing kick with more than half of those points in the final 35 games. He has bounced around the lineup all season, but he's now centering Washington's top line between Alex Ovechkin and Joel Ward.
"His vision is unbelievable," Ward said. "I think that's what separates him from a lot of guys. He's come a long way. You can see he's finding his groove pretty good now, and he understands the game and the fundamentals of it."
A rookie by NHL standards, Kuznetsov brings a wealth of experience internationally and in playoff competition. He played in 48 playoff games with Traktor Chelyabinsk in the KHL.
He's accustomed to the pressure that accompanies a high level of competition, and he's experienced the ups and downs associated with it.
Kuznetsov was named a KHL all-star twice and scored 78 goals and 167 points in 251 regular-season and playoff games with Traktor. He played for Russia in three World Junior Championships, winning gold in 2011, was named to the tournament all-star team twice, and was MVP in 2012.
Kuznetsov is a skilled puck-mover who knows how to set up passes and has an impressive ability to score. He has 11 goals this season and had the pass that set up Ovechkin's 50th goal, joking afterward that it earned him dinner.
"It's Russian tradition," Kuznetsov said. "If you win something big for you, you have to buy something for your friends."
He has worked hard to improve in the defensive zone; he's effective in the faceoff circle and has seen time on Washington's primary and secondary power-play units.
Becuase he has played top- and bottom-six minutes, Kuznetsov can adapt to play with anyone on the roster and hold his own in any situation and against top players. Earlier this month, Kuznetsov went head-to-head against Pavel Datsyuk, the Detroit Red Wings' top center, in a 2-1 win in Detroit.
"[Kuznetsov's] game has risen to a level on both sides of the puck where I feel very comfortable with him," Trotz said. "I think he's bright. His battle skills are good, his reads are good. He's doing all the right things as a player."