There was a very distinct Russian clique at the NHLPA Rookie Showcase in Toronto this weekend, with Washington's Evgeny Kuznetsov, Boston's Alexander Khoklachev and the Tampa Bay duo of Vlad Namestnikov and Andrei Vasilevskiy. They hung out during media availability and on the ice, teasing Vasilevskiy as he forged through a rare English interview and cracking up when Khoklachev bailed behind the net.
For Kuznetsov, this was clearly his element. The Capitals' first pick in 2010 had been a highly anticipated prospect for years, choosing to develop his game with Traktor Chelyabinsk in the KHL instead of North America and for a while there, it seemed like he might never come over. But the powerful and gifted center did indeed make his debut last year, getting into 17 games with Washington once his KHL campaign was done and posting a decent nine points.
You would think a player who had already helped his hometown Chelyabinsk squad get to a Gagarin Cup final in Russia would be a little less awed by the NHL, but that wasn't the case with Kuznetsov and his debut.
“It was exciting," he said. "I was a little nervous before the game. Playing even one game in the NHL is a dream, something you tell your kids. You watch on TV and see all those stars.”
If all goes according to plan, Kuznetsov will play a much larger role on the Caps this season, where he is still eligible to win the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. Nicklas Backstrom is the unquestioned No. 1 center in Washington, but there is a dire need for a scoring pivot behind him, especially since Mikhail Grabosvki decamped for Long Island.
At the least, getting in those 17 games last season helped acclimate Kuznetsov to the NHL game. It also caught him up to speed with just how good the best league in the world is: Any opponent can be a threat.
“You don’t need to pay attention to the last name because everybody in the league is good," he said. "You have to watch out the whole game and have concentration.”
Kuznetsov has shown in the past that he can take over a game. At the 2012 world juniors in Calgary, he was a force of nature, garnering MVP honors and taking over long stretches of games. Only the shutdown heroics of Swedish defensemen Oscar Klefbom and Jonas Brodin could slow him down in the final, which the Tre Kroner won 1-0 in overtime on a goal by Mika Zibanejad. Now he's on a team with another Russian gamechanger in Alex Ovechkin and the early mentorship from 'Ovie' has been invaluable.
“Alex has really helped me," Kuznetsov said. "I stayed in his house for three weeks and he showed me all of the city and what I need to do (as a pro). It was very important for me.”
The other key figure in the 22-year-old's life this season will be new Caps coach Barry Trotz. Coming over from Nashville, Trotz has a reputation as a defensively staunch bench boss, which theoretically will help an historically porous Washington squad. And though the Preds have a rocky past with certain Russians (and Belarussians), Kuznetsov's research indicates no hard feelings towards Trotz from that crew.
“I talked with Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn and Radulov," he said. "They said he was a great guy, a smart guy – a lot of tactics. They all said he was a great coach.”
If Trotz and Kuznetsov (not to mention new D-men Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen) can elevate the Caps, Washington will definitely get back to the playoffs after a one-year hiatus. And if Kuznetsov is as good as he has trended in his young career, who knows how good the Caps can be in the future.