Nearly four years after he was first drafted into the Washington organization in June, 2010, Caps forward prospect Evgeny Kuznetsov has agreed to contract terms with the team and is in the D.C. area. He’ll skate at Kettler Capitals Iceplex on Sunday morning at 8 a.m. and then he’ll be made available to the media afterwards.
On Monday against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Verizon Center, the 21-year-old Kuznetsov is expected to make his NHL debut with the Capitals against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
When Kuznetsov landed at Dulles International Airport on Saturday afternoon, two members of the Washington Capitals’ organization were there to greet the forward and drive him back to Verizon Center.
It’s no accident that the two-man greeting crew was made up of the guy from the Caps' organization with whom Kuznetsov has had the most one-on-one contact over the last four years and the other is a guy with whom he is likely to have almost daily contact with for as long as he is a member of the Capitals.
Steve Richmond is the Capitals’ director of player development. He checks in routinely with all the drafted prospects in the Washington system periodically throughout their seasons, wherever they’re playing. He has been back and forth to Russia a few times over the years to check in on Kuznetsov.
Ian Anderson is the Capitals’ director (wizard, really) of team services. He is at every Caps’ game at home and on the road, and he’s the guy who arranges for everything to be just so with all of the Caps’ travel arrangements and hotel accommodations. Anything Kuznetsov needs at any hour, Anderson can get it for him. Or direct him to someone who can.
One familiar face, one soon-to-be familiar face. So begins Kuznetsov’s time in North America.
Late last summer, much was made of Caps head coach Adam Oates traveling to Russia to see Caps captain Alex Ovechkin, and to make a side trip to Chelyabinsk to get his first look at Kuznetsov on the ice with his KHL team, Chelyabinsk Traktor. But few people are aware that Richmond went on that trip along with Oates. And while the primary reason for Oates’ travel was to visit with Ovechkin, Richmond’s reason for heading to Russia was to spend some quality time with Kuznetsov.
“The main part of the trip for me was to spend time with Kuzy and his wife and go to his hometown [of Chelyabinsk],” Richmond tells me. “It meant a lot to the kid and his family that we took the trip there to see where he is from and what he is about. And he was really proud to have us there as his guest.
“We saw two games and it was terrific. He set up everything for us, set up the hotel and got us tickets for the game. We met his parents and sat with his parents at one game. I met his wife last year. We went to dinner after both games, and spent a lot of time with them, like three hours after the game. It was all open arms, even with the organization, too. It wasn’t like we were a threat to them coming in there and stealing their star player. They couldn’t be more friendly.”
Chelyabinsk is a few hours in the air from Moscow, and it’s quite different from the country’s cosmopolitan capital, too.
“Like the difference between Chicago and Gary, Indiana,” says Richmond, himself a Chicago native.
“I have seen him in Russia, but this was my first time in Chelyabinsk,” relates Richmond. “I kept telling him I was going to come and I’m glad Oatesy decided he wanted to go.
“It was a terrific trip. I think we really solidified the fact that the Capitals really want you and care about you and your family, making sure that everything is going to be all right. We talked to him about living here [in Washington] and what it’s about and making sure that his family will be comfortable once they come over.
“It’s tough. Even though they speak a little English, you come over here and it’s a big city. It’s a lot different. He’s the mayor of Chelyabinsk, he is. Like he says, ‘I’m the Ovi of Chelyabinsk.’ And he is.
“We went into a restaurant and the chef was having a problem with our food. [Kuznetsov] got on the phone and called the owner – because he knew the owner – and the owner came in and cooked us dinner. He’s 21 years old. We were like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ But he does it in a good way; really humble, very polite. It was just a terrific trip.”
Kuznetsov likely could have played in the NHL with the Capitals as early as 2010-11, but he certainly could have played here in 2011-12. But he was comfortable and well-compensated while playing in his hometown, and he had hopes of playing for his country in the Sochi Olympics in 2014 so he signed a two-year deal with Traktor going into the 2012-13 season.
That two-year deal expires on April 30, but with Traktor’s elimination from contention for the KHL playoffs, the team allowed Kuznetsov to depart for the District with its blessing.
Now Kuznetsov’s aim is to take his game to North America and see how he measures up against the best in the world.
“They offered him a [contract] extension and he told us he just turned them down, and it’s for a lot of money,” says Richmond. “He said, ‘No, I want to go to the NHL. It’s time.’ And his wife is ready to come over. She speaks English, as does Kuzy. They’re excited.”
Caps fans are excited, too. It’s been a long wait, and now it’s almost over.