NASHVILLE -- On Wednesday night, hours before the rest of the hockey world learned that Alex Ovechkin was pulling out of this weekend’s NHL All-Star Game, Evgeny Kuznetsov was on the phone with his parents in Chelyabinsk, Russia sharing the news that he would be his teammate’s replacement.
“I think, ‘I can’t hold this news. I’ve got to say something,’” Kuznetsov said Friday at Bridgestone Arena, home of Sunday’s NHL All-Star Game. “I think my mom cry a little bit for sure, but it’s good. You know, happy (tears).”
Through 47 games, Kuznetsov ranks fourth in the NHL with 34 assists and fifth in points with 49. He’s on pace to become the first player not named Ovechkin or Nicklas Backstrom to lead the Capitals in scoring since Ovechkin arrived in Washington in 2005.
“It’s great,” said Backstrom, who has waited nine years to play in his first All-Star Game. “I feel like he really deserves it, too. He’s fun to watch on the ice and I’m sure he likes to be part of this, too, so I’m excited for him.”
Capitals fans who wondered if they’d ever see Kuznetsov in a Capitals uniform are just as excited. Taken by the Caps with the 26th overall pick of the 2010 NHL draft, Kuznetsov played parts of four seasons for his hometown Traktor Chelyabinsk – recording 73 goals and 94 assists in in 241 games – before finally signing a contract to join the Caps with 17 games remaining in the 2013-14 season.
Kuznwetsov showed flashes of brilliance in the final month of that season but showed steady improvement under Barry Trotz in his first full NHL season last year, recording 11 goals and 26 assists in 80 games.
This season, at the age of 23, Kuznetsov has become a full-fledged star.
“Of course, I’m happy for him,” said Penguins center and possible All-Star linemate Evgeni Malkin.
“This year he’s played amazing. He worked hard all summer and he’s shown his best game in Washington. He deserves to be here. We played together on the (2012) national team and he was a superstar in the KHL. He’s fun to watch. He’s a skill guy with speed and I knew when he came here Ovechkin would help him. I’m happy he’s here and I hope he comes back here every year.”
Kuznetsov is six years younger than Malkin and remembers rooting against him when Malkin’s home town of Magnitogorsk faced Chelyabinsk.
“I saw him when I was really small and he probably not recognized me,” Kuznetsov said. “We always played against his team so we hate each other always when we were small. But not now. He’s a really nice guy and he has a lot of skill. But I’m a Caps fan now.”
Kuznetsov smiled and laughed throughout his 20-minute session with reporters on Friday and had some interesting takes on a variety of topics, including:
On Russian forward Alexander Radulov, who lasted only two seasons under Barry Trotz in Nashville before returning to the KHL:
“Not being there I did not know the whole situation. Before Barry came (to Washington) some guys tell me he’s not good for Russians but that’s not right. He doesn’t look at your passport.”
On Maple Leafs center and fellow All-Star Leo Komarov:
“Don’t trust him. He’s half Russian, half Finnish, half Australian. Nah, he’s a really nice guy.”
On his improving English:
“Did you watch my first interview? I didn’t learn the language in school, so when I came I just know like 1-2-3, hello, how are you? Sergey (Kocharov, Caps Director of Media Relations) helped me talk with the people and listen to how guys talk on TV. That helped me a little bit, plus my wife (Nastia) learn this language probably 10 years in school. She can read books, so she can speak really, really nice. She’s trying to teach me a little bit.”
On whether he will mimic Ovechkin and wear a cowboy hat and glasses in the breakaway relay of Saturday’s skills competition:
“No, I lost it (cowboy hat) in Calgary. I don’t know. Maybe something coming for sure like that. We’re going to make something, for sure. I’m not going to wear the cowboy hat, come on, but we’re going to make something, for sure.”
On how much he’s enjoying his life in the NHL:
“I just like the life and enjoy the life. Sometimes I smile too much, sometimes not too much. My family is healthy and I’m healthy, too.”
On how he feels about playing in his first NHL All-Star Game:
“It’s the same feeling as two years ago (before playing in his first NHL game). My hands are sweaty. It’s a special moment for my parents and my family. That’s what I want to do. Make these people happy every day.”
On getting a chance to talk about himself:
“I try to never talk much about my game but today we can talk a little bit. It’s like a Christmas present for you. But I wouldn’t be here without my (teammates). I just want to say thanks to them. I think it all starts with our locker room and our relationship and how we love each other.”
On what advice Alex Ovechkin gave him:
“He just ordered some hats and to buy his (All-Star) jersey. He told me he’s happy every time he comes here and he just told me enjoy the moment.
On what he’s learned from Ovechkin:
“He’s one of the most liked guys. When he talks in the locker room everybody listens to him. This year he’s much better with leadership. He’s changed in a good way.”
On his relationship with former Capitals forward Alex Semin, who left the Montreal Canadiens to play in the KHL:
“He texted me a couple hours ago. We talk every day right now. I’m pretty happy for him. He’s playing well right now and he’s finding his game again and I believe he’ll come back (to the NHL) next year. I think he’s still a good player and just needs to have the right team and the right coach, his coach.”
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