When the Washington Capitals drafted Evgeni Kuznetsov in the first round of the 2010 NHL Draft, they knew that the Russian prodigy would not be coming to North America right away. However, they never anticipated that he would still be in Russia four years later, having expected him in the NHL after the 2011-12 season. That wasn’t the case as Kuznetsov re-signed with his KHL club, Traktor Chelyabinsk, for two additional seasons that summer. He stated that he wanted to play in the KHL to have the best chance of playing in the Sochi Olympics and then he would then join the Capitals.
While Kunznetsov never made the Olympic team, it appears he will still be coming to the Capitals sometime after the games, perhaps as early as this season. On Monday, Kuznetsov tweeted that he will be leaving Russia “very soon” (via Google translate). Previously, he has also tweeted, and subsequently deleted, a photo of an e-mail that included his U.S. visa application in January, which is available at Russian Machine Never Breaks. In a January interview with Russian Newspaper R-Sport, Kuznetsov stated that the 2013-14 season would be his last in the KHL, and he would soon join the Capitals as he promised in the summer of 2012.
How early he would be available is unclear. Traktor currently sit in the final KHL playoff spot with just four games left in the season (to be resumed after the Olympic break). The regular season ends on March 4th. If they make the playoffs and lose in the first round, he could be done his KHL commitments in mid-march. If they advance further, he would obviously delay his move to the NHL. And so the Capitals wait a little longer for their young blue-chipper.
Where Kuznetsov lines up when he gets to Washington is anyone’s guess. He was drafted by the Capitals as a centre, and it would appear that the Capitals would like to try him there. However, he has spent his last three seasons in the KHL playing on the wing.
Some prospect watchers, myself included, believe that Kuznetsov is the best prospect currently playing outside the NHL. But why is that, and what can he bring to the Capitals for the playoff run? Here is my updated scouting report:
Top Prospect, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Centre/Wing
Born May 19 1992 — Chelyabinsk, RUS
Height 6.03 — Weight 187 — Shoots Left
Selected by the Washington Capitals in round 1, #26 overall at the 2010 NHL Entry Draft
Evgeny Kuznetsov is an absolute stud prospect. At the 2012 World Junior Championships, his 13 points in 7 games led the tournament in scoring, and his hat-trick against Team Canada in the semi-final helped propel Russia to the Gold Medal game. It would be the second straight Gold Medal game for Kuznetsov who was also on the 2011 World Junior champions. Last season, Kuzentsov scored 44 points in 51 games in the KHL, good enough for 6th in KHL scoring. His 19 goals had him in a tie for 15th place among KHL players. He led Traktor Chelyabinsk in scoring, made the KHL all-star team and he did this all as a 20-year-old. He went on to play in the IIHF Men’s World Championship for the 2nd time.
This season has been tougher on Kuznetsov as he’s had to deal with shoulder and leg injuries that have limited him to just 27 games. He does, however, have 7 goals and 17 points in those games.
Kuznetsov has limitless talent. At 6’3″, he has the ideal size that teams crave down the middle in the modern NHL. He could stand to bulk up a little, but it’s not an immediate concern. He’s an outstanding skater, with great top-end speed, excellent acceleration and changes of pace, super edgework and agility, and is strong and balanced on his skates. Combine that skating ability with his silky smooth hands, wide variety of creative moves, a fearlessness to try anything, and the ability to do all this with the puck while skating at top speed, and you have a player who is an absolute nightmare to defend off the rush. Add a lethal wrist shot and release, and it’s almost unfair to defenders and goalies.
Kuznetsov has spent the season working on his playmaking ability. He has great passing skills and can make crisp, hard passes through the tiniest of openings when he wants to; however setting up teammates is something he just didn’t do often enough in the past. He’s already a sniper, and as he has more of a willingness to be the playmaker too, something he showed this season, he will keep defenders guessing. This dual threat could help to make him into an NHL superstar.
Kuznetsov’s defensive game is a bit of a work in progress. He understands defensive zone hockey and positioning and attempts to keep his man to the outside when defending down low on the cycle, but he needs more strength to make it happen consistently. He is willing to engage in battles for pucks on the boards, but again, just needs more physical strength to do so effectively. Kuznetsov has good instincts and anticipation which helps him to cause turnovers and transition from defence to forward.
The Caps will love to add him as soon as possible, whether that means late in the year or for 2014 training camp. He’s NHL ready now. Kuznetsov has all the talent to be a superstar forward, and might be the best player who has never played in the NHL currently. Still just 21 years old, there is plenty of time for him to be Washington’s next Russian superstar and help lead the Capitals offence with Alex Ovechkin and Nick Backstrom.
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