When Evgeny Kuznetsov began his first full season in the NHL, his English was halting and so was his play.
Mixed into his flashes of brilliance were moments of hesitation and indecision. There were lost one-on-one battles and risky forays into outnumbered situations.
But when his season finished, the 23-year-old Russian had established himself as a star-in-waiting.
“He filled a hole at second-line center that we’ve been trying to fill for a number of years,” Caps general manager Brian MacLellan said.
And now, like many of his free agents, MacLellan will need to determine Kuznetsov’s value.
By signing Kuznetsov to a two-year contract near the end of the 2013-14 season, the Caps allowed Kuznetsov to become a restricted free agent at the end of this season.
Although Kuznetsov carried a cap hit of $900,000 his performance bonuses of $1 million last season and $2.85 million this season will make his next contract negotiations interesting.
“I talk to my agent and he said, ‘Don’t worry, I got this job,” Kuznetsov said. “That’s hockey life. You don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. I’m ready for any deal. The last three years I only sign a deal for one year or two years. That’s hard for me and my family. I want to stay in one city, one place and feel comfortable.”
Asked last week if he would like to remain in the NHL, Kuznetsov smiled and said, “What do you think? This is the best league in the world. I wondered what it would be like and now I know.”
Kuznetsov began the season as a fourth-line center and played in 80 games as a rookie, finishing with 11 goals, 26 assists and a plus-10 rating. By midseason he was elevated to the second line and second power-play unit and by the playoffs he was logging more than 16 minutes a game [20:55 in the Caps’ Game 7 loss to the Rangers] and finished with five goals and two assists in 14 playoff games. By comparison, Kuznetsov averaged less than 11 minutes of ice time in the first two months of the season.
“I feel comfortable,” he said. “Every practice, every game, I try to learn something, just trying to focus on my job and on my team game. Every guy on our team knows their role on our team and helped us in the season and in the playoffs, too. We didn’t do our job yet and we want to bring that for the next season.
“The coach [Barry Trotz] gives us a plan and we have to listen to him and stay with the plan. We’re a great team but we have to put more urgency in our game. It is a great team in the locker room. Out of the locker room we grow closer and that moment is very important for the team and I feel that and I learn that. I understand in my career that team is very important and right now I know one guy doesn’t win the Cup. Whole team win the Cup.”
After 41 career playoff games in the KHL, in which he recorded 13 goals and eight assists, Kuznetsov said he was not overwhelmed by the pace or physicality of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
“If you hungry for practice and to play, you never feel the pain,” he said.
“I know what it is. I feel again that hurt when you lose the game and you go into the summer. I feel that my first time [in the NHL]. After every time I lose, it’s something bigger for me and I’m going to be better. I know one small mistake in a game changes momentum and gets your team down. You have to go into the summer practicing for net season because you never know when you’re going to win the Cup. To win the Cup next season you have to be ready.
“My goal is after every season go home and think about what I did good this year and I didn’t do it yet because it’s tough moment right now.”
Kuznetsov said he will return to his home in Chelyabinsk for at least a couple of weeks – “All my family miss me and want to kiss me and hug me. That moment is very important to me,” he said – before turning his attention to a new contract and another season with the Capitals.
“When I came last year I don’t know the organization and the NHL,” he said. “Right now I know organization. I know this is different lifestyle. I say if you don’t have a problem in your life, with your family and your wife and your parents, you have a chance to focus on the game and practice with your whole 100 [percent] energy. That moment is very important to a hockey player.”