I, like many hockey writers, have publicly chastised Washington Capitals GM George McPhee for trading away elite prospect Filip Forsberg. But the most optimistic Caps fans out there viewed that trade as affordable because, at least at the time, Forsberg wasn’t their top-rated prospect.
That was Evgeny Kuznetsov. And it appears a player many call the best outside the NHL is about to make a living inside the NHL.
The Washington Post reports Kuznestov, 21, will fly to D.C. now that his Kontinental League contract has been terminated. The deal was supposed to expire April 30, but the regular season is over and Kuznestov’s team, Trakor Chelyabinsk, missed the playoffs. The NHL’s collective bargaining agreement will let the Caps ink him to a two-year, entry-level contract with a maximum cap hit of $900,000. As the Post reports, Washington would have to send a body to the American League to make room. No problem.
At THN, this is significant news, as we’ve been tracking Kuznetsov closely since Washington picked him 26th overall in 2010. But anyone who doesn’t follow the KHL may wonder what the big deal is. Who is Evgeny Kuznestov?
You probably best remember him as the powerhouse center who terrorized Canada at the World Junior Championship, especially in 2012. He’s a very slick stickhandler, a pure offensive weapon with good enough size (6-foot-1, 198 pounds), favorably compared to Evgeni Malkin. He has to work on his two-way play, but that’s no surprise.
A year ago, plenty of pundits speculated if we’d ever see Kuznetsov in North America, but a lot has changed since then. The last year of his KHL contract was a rocky one, mired by injuries and an exclusion from Russia’s Olympic team. That stung because a big reason why he stayed home was to up his chances of making the Sochi squad. Toss in missing the playoffs and a change of scenery doesn’t look so bad anymore.
So what should Washington Capitals fans expect if Kuznestov suits up before the season is up? No extreme would shock me. On one hand, he’s still a kid, he has no experience playing North American pro hockey and he’s defensively deficient. He could flounder. On the other, he’s tremendously talented and he did an outstanding job scoring in the KHL, a league of grown men in which youngsters typically have their ice time (and stats) capped. He’ll have Alex Ovechkin mentoring him and we could see instant chemistry should Adam Oates try Kuznetsov on the wing with Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.
Whatever happens, it’s exciting. Kuznestov rates as the No. 6 prospect overall in Future Watch 2014. His ranks since he was drafted: third, first, third, sixth. He only really slipped from No. 1 because we and the scouts we commissioned weren’t sure if he’d come to the NHL.
Here’s hoping we see him in a Caps uniform soon. And if words don’t give you a proper sense of what the kid can do, let your eyes tell the story:
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin