Evgeny Kuznetsov

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How the Caps' European players are adjusting to life thousands of miles from home

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How the Caps' European players are adjusting to life thousands of miles from home

When the Capitals take the ice each game, they represent Washington, D.C. Off the ice, however, the players are a collection of talent from all over the world. Washington is the team they play for, but neither Washington nor America is where many of them come from. Many players are a long way from home, playing hockey in what is, for them, a foreign country.

Hockey is what brought them to America and adjusting to a new country brings with it a number of challenges. Coming from Canada is one thing, but coming from Europe where life is very different is quite another.

The Capitals roster is full of several players from all over Europe. What is it like trying to adjust to life in America? What does this country look like from an outside perspective? In their own words, here are the stories of those players about what life is like in their new home.

What was adjusting to life in America like when you first came to this country?

Nicklas Backstrom: "It was different, that's for sure. I think first of all, the culture back home when you play, we had a lot of single guys over there. We practiced in the morning, had lunch together and then we went grab a coffee, sit down together, had dinner together. We pretty much were hanging out with each other for the whole day. I think culture over here a little bit more is you practice and then you go home, do your own stuff. It was a little bit of transition to start there, but once you get used to it you just adjust. I think that was the biggest eye-opener for me because that's the only thing I knew before I come over here and then all of a sudden you were just solo, by yourself. A little different, but once you adjust, you're fine.”

Radko Gudas: “The States and Europe, everything is different. Even the smallest thing is little bit different. It's definitely a lot of getting used to it. Moving from Washington State to Virginia to New York, every state has something different. Going from the West Coast to the East Coast, it was a lot of things to get used to.

“When I got drafted, I signed two weeks after that and I didn't have my [social security number]. I couldn't get any paychecks yet. I didn't have a bank account in the States, I didn't have nothing. My first, I would say month and a half, maybe two months I was pretty much living off my per diem or what my savings were from the leagues in Czech Republic. … I had to get a car, driver's license which was a pain in the ass, the insurance. I had a lot of help from all the staff and the Norfolk Admirals front office. Really happy that they helped me through a lot, but I’m sure I wasn't the only guy that they had to deal with through all this. It's obviously not an easy thing to do, but if you have the right people, I was fortunate enough to have the right people around me to help me through a lot. Made it all the way here and still don't have the IRS knocking on my door so I guess I did something right.”

Axel Jonsson-Fjallby: “Go to the grocery store, I don't know the brands. Don't know what's the best brand and stuff like that. So just small things.”

Martin Fehervary: “In Europe, in Sweden I came, I got everything set up. Here I had to find apartment so I did. Need to figure it out my car so lifestyle like this. But, I mean, it's fun.”

Eller: “It's different, but I think the biggest part is just being a grownup, being an adult, paying the bills, paying rent, finding out things on your own. For a lot of guys it's a big step of maybe living with a family or living at home and now all of a sudden you're on your own. You've got to cook, you've got to grocery shop, you've got to do this and that. I think that's the biggest step, just becoming an adult person, not necessarily it doesn't have to do with hockey. And also, I think if you speak the language it helps a lot, but for like a Russian player or eastern Europeans, that can be a lot tougher for sure. For me, I spoke the language, makes a big difference.”

How much English did you know and how difficult did that make the transition?

Evgeny Kuznetsov: “Zero.”

[Describing his first press conference] “I'm just guessing at that time pretty much every time. I see reaction, if these people happy that means I'm guessing the right way.”

Michal Kempny: “I didn't speak any English. I think the language is No. 1 [hardest part]. I tried to learn English as fast as I could. Different country, different people. I never been in the U.S. before so it was kind of everything new, but year after year I felt better and better.”

Jonas Siegenthaler: “If I didn't understand something it was just maybe one or two words and then I just ask. But overall, I spoke pretty good English from school. I started to learn English when I was seven years old. My birth year was the first year that had this English class from seven years old. I'm glad for that.”

Jakub Vrana: “It's kind of easy to learn when you just in here and you hear it every day. It's different than if you're back home and you're actually going to school and you have a one-hour, two-hour class and it’s like not it, you know? Because then you speak Czech all day. So here you don't have a chance so you're hungry, you're going to ask for food. You're going to understand, it's important.”

Backstrom: “We have English in school, but I was terrible at that, to be honest. I wasn't great. First one or two years, I was pretty quiet around there, I was just trying to learn. I was just trying to pick up the language and it helped me a lot that I had roommates [Matt Bradley, Mike Green] that spoke English. You could practice with them. Once you get a little more confident too, that helps as well.”

Richard Panik: “I had great grades in school in English, but as soon as I got here I didn't understand. I couldn't speak. It took me maybe like six months to get used to it and then it was just easier and easier.”

Carl Hagelin: “I thought I knew it better than I did. It was easy for me to read and stuff, but I think having conversations and speaking in front of people is pretty hard my first year. And then by my third semester [at the University of Michigan], I started picking up more and more. I was pretty quiet my first year, just kind of hung around and tried to learn as much as possible. Because even though you knew, we speak more the Oxford English, British English back home. And then you came over here and you used some words that they would use and some of the guys are just looking at you. And on our team, there was no other Europeans so I would say it's probably easier around an NHL team because you have the Canadians, the French Canadians and people are used to people with different dialects and language.”

Gudas: “I graduated in English as the best of my class so I thought I'm speaking fluently and perfect, but when I showed up in the States I found out I don't know [expletive]. All the slang and all the Canadians around, it was a different English than we learned in school. We learned the proper 'English' English. It took me at least two, three months to get it going to at least be able to have a fun conversation of just like what I need and what I want.”

What is something you find weird or different about America and Americans?

Siegenthaler: “I just found out that you can buy your groceries online, get it delivered. Yeah, back home if you tell somebody that you get your groceries delivered, it's kind of like, um, you're a lazy ass.”

Eller: “I won't say everybody is that way, but [Americans] tend to only know what's going on in America. Everything outside of America, they're not very well educated on that.”

Gudas: “I think the attachment to the phones. You don't see that in Czech. Everybody trying to live more outside than inside, you know? I think that's one thing that could change here.”

Panik: “The first thing I noticed, everybody is just too friendly. It just seems like, you don't even know the person and it seems like you know the person for 10 years. It's weird. Back home, we're conservative. I wouldn't say they're bad people, still good, but like here it's more I think when you meet somebody new it's more open.”

Hagelin: “I love the fact that people love going to sporting events. Like back home, if you go to [a] sporting event you go and you kind of sit and you dissect the game. You don't really talk to fans from the other team and you don't really wear jerseys. Like a girl in Sweden would never wear a jersey to a game, they'll get dressed up and go to a game. Here it doesn't matter who you are, you put a jersey on and you show your support. It's a different feel in here. Obviously it's cool in Europe, but the fan clubs are screaming and hollering throughout the whole game, but it's a different experience and I think that's cool.”

Backstrom: “Only thing maybe that I notice is they're really bad drivers in the rain.”

Kuznetsov: “Driving. The way they drive.”

What do you think of American food?

Panik: “Back home when you say American food, everybody imagine hamburgers, fries, but even here you can find great restaurant with the great food. Basically you can cook at home whatever you wanted. I think American food, it means hamburgers. I like it, but I don't eat it that often. It's different than Slovakian for sure.”

Jonsson-Fjallby: “I feel like good food is usually a lot more expensive than fast food and stuff. I mean, in Sweden, it's also cheaper with fast food, but it's not that big a difference so if you want a good dinner it's quite expensive here.”

Eller: “I eat a hot dog or pizza once in a while, but I don't eat a lot. I think it's changed here over the last decade. Now it's trending much more towards healthier food and greens and veggies. People are more aware now than they were a decade ago I think. So it is changing, but you can always find your McDonalds and your Domino's, right? Even though I rarely eat that anymore, I like the diversity. You can get everything. That's what I like about America. Every kind of food is available.”

Hagelin: “You can see there's a bit of a health kick coming now and if you want good food you can always find it. That's the great part especially. I've been fortunate to live in some big cities and some health-conscious people living in those cities, especially in California. Any place you go to, there's some good and healthy food.”

Vrana: “Fries and burgers, that's like typical, isn’t it? Steak? Fries? That's very American? Or ribs? Sometimes it's not bad, but I would not recommend it like eat it too much.”

Ilya Samsonov: “There's better meat here, steaks. Steak is very good.”

Siegenthaler: “It's more fried stuff. More burgers, fries. I found a Swiss restaurant here in D.C. They're pretty good. I think we're pretty good friends. When I miss home or when I miss the Swiss food, I just go get dinner at the Swiss restaurant. Makes me feel like home.”

What do you miss about home?

Kuznetsov: “Everything. People, food. This summer I wasn't home so a long time. Most important, we got the families back home. We've got the grandmothers, all those people who pretty much see us once in a while. They get so old. The older they get, the more you want to see them.”

Hagelin: “I think just having your family close by. Now with all the technology, it feels like they're close, with facetime and all that. I think just that feeling that everyone's close and you're just a 40-minute car ride away from all your closest people.”

Gudas: “You get a lot of visits here from the family, but the grandmas, grandpas don't come here as much anymore and now having kids, it would be nice to be around the great grandparents and be around them so I think that's the hardest thing for me, not being able to have my kids around my grandparents as much as I would like to. It's always hard in the summer to go and see them for a while because [the kids] need their rest too, but we try to get them involved as much as we can, forcing them to speak as much Czech as we can so they don't only speak English.”

Samsonov: “I don't know, maybe dumplings. A little bit talking with the Russian guys, my friends, my family. It's OK. I'm professional hockey player. That's my life.”


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Remembering the other series-clinching goal from Evgeny Kuznetsov

Remembering the other series-clinching goal from Evgeny Kuznetsov

When you think about Evgeny Kuznetsov in the playoffs, most probably think of his overtime-winning goal against the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2018 that ended the series and handed Washington a long-awaited victory over its archrival. But that wasn’t the first series-clinching goal Kuznetsov scored.

Before the Stanley Cup was brought to Washington, before the bird celebration, there was another epic moment of Kuznetsov’s career that now feels overshadowed by the 2018 run.

In 2015, the Caps returned to the playoffs after a one-year hiatus. They entered the postseason as the second-place team in the Metropolitan Division, drawing the third-place New York Islanders in the first round.

A back-and-forth series, it ultimately went the distance with Game 7 being played in Washington. As even as the series had been, the Caps dominated that Game 7, suffocating the Islanders and giving up only 11 shots on goal. Joel Ward put Washington ahead 1-0, but Frans Nielsen tied it early in the third period. Despite the dominant defensive performance, Jaroslav Halak (remember him?) would not allow the Caps to the chance to put the game away.

Just when it began to feel as if Halak was going to steal away another Game 7 from the Caps, a young Russian center in just his first full NHL season took over.

With less than eight minutes remaining in the third period, Kuznetsov took a pass along the half wall, showed Frans Nielsen his back and when Nielsen bit, he spun and cut to the center of the ice. Nielsen was caught a step behind and whacked Kuznetsov in desperation, actually diving to the ice to try to keep him from breaking loose. In one slick move Kuznetsov had cut through the Islanders’ defense and was in alone on net. Halak went down to the butterfly as Kuznetsov cut to center, but Kuznetsov showed incredible patience and did not immediately shoot. Suddenly, Halak was committed and helpless. He dove to his right desperately holding up the glove as Kuznetsov kept gliding across the ice, but Halak had left too much of the net open by going down too soon and Kuznetsov hit the corner.

With 7:18 remaining in the game and the series, Kuznetsov had given the Caps the 2-1 lead.

The series was a breakout performance for Kuznetsov who returned the following season and earned a top-six role, something not all that easy for young players to do under head coach Barry Trotz. It also gave a franchise still bearing the scars of Halak’s 2010 upset a measure of revenge.

And the rest is history.

What heroics does Kuznetsov have in store for the Islanders on Saturday when the two teams meet at 1 p.m.? Tune in to NBC Sports Washington at 12 p.m. for coverage.

Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports. Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream Capitals and Wizards games easily from your device.


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Capitals Mailbag Part 1: So far so good for Kuznetsov?

Capitals Mailbag Part 1: So far so good for Kuznetsov?

It’s time for a new Capitals mailbag! Check out Part 1 below.

Have a Caps question you want answered in the next mailbag? Send it on Twitter using #CapsMailNBC or by email to CapitalsMailbag@gmail.com.

Please note, some questions have been edited for clarity.

R. Pea writes: When does Alex Ovechkin’s contract end? Do the Caps go a year to 2-year contracts after his contract ends henceforth? Do we have anybody in the organization projected as the Ovechkin heir apparent? Whatever happened to the Forsberg kid and if we don't have him in the org, how did he pan out?

Wow, where to begin….

Let me first note that if I thought this was a prank, I would not answer, but I have read this email several times and I am pretty sure you are being sincere about Filip Forsberg in which case...I have some bad news.

Forsberg was traded to the Nashville Predators for Martin Erat and Micahel Latta in April 2013. That’s it. There was not first-round draft pick included, no superstar I forgot to mention, just those two. If you didn’t know Forsberg had been traded then I’ll go out on a limb and say that you haven’t heard of either Erat or Latta. Good. Sometimes ignorance is bliss. Let’s not dwell on the return. At the end of the day, the Caps traded away a star prospect for two players who are no longer in the league. Forsberg, still just 25, already has 150 goals and 163 assists in 401 games played for the Predators.

It easily the worst trade in franchise history and will be remembered as one of the worst trades in this history of the NHL.

Other things you may have missed since 2013: The Caps won a Stanley Cup, the Redskins still don't have a quarterback, Kim Kardashian is still famous for some reason, the 2017 Oscars were hilarious and Steve Harvey laughed the hardest, I still don't know who Lorde is and it makes me feel old and as for politics...nah, let’s move on.

Ovechkin’s contract runs through the 2020-21 season. He is eligible to sign a new contract at the start of the next league year (July 2020). I have no doubt that he will sign an extension, the question is how long? The only way he will get signed short-term on a year by year basis, similar to what Joe Thornton gets in San Jose, is if he wants to. Maybe he wants to leave the door open for returning to the KHL or maybe he doesn’t want a long-term deal because he doesn’t want to be a depth player by the end of it. If he goes to the Caps and says I want five more years, the team is not going to give the greatest player in the history of the organization a one-year counter offer.

As for who comes after Ovechkin, no, there are no superstar, franchise players currently in the system. Connor McMichael is the best forward prospect in the organization and I think he could possibly be a top-line center. Players of Ovechkin’s caliber are hard to find as in about once in a generation, especially when you’re a team that has success and gets only late-round draft picks.

Nathan S. writes: Thoughts on Evgeny Kuznetsov and Dmitry Orlov's season so far? Both slumped last year and needed big bounce-back years.

Kuznetsov has been good, but quieter than I expected. I thought he would come into this season and just completely dominate. In 11 games, he has five goals and four assists. He initially looked more assertive with his shooting up until Wednesday’s game when he deked a player out of his skates, but instead of shooting on the open net elected to finish the play he had already started in his head and wheeled around looking for the pass. For the most part, however, he has been good. Better than last year, but still not at the superstar level we have seen in the past. When he has a really good season, he tends to break out around January so let’s see where he is at that point.

As for Orlov, I like his play a lot. The occasional turnover is still there, but he has been strong. I made the mistake of thinking when the blue line was shorthanded at the start of the season with Michal Kempny injured and Tyler Lewington playing every night due to cap reasons, surely people will see how good he is as he is one of only two healthy top-four defensemen on the roster and that will quiet the criticism and calls to trade him. Never underestimate the power of first impressions, I guess.

Look, if you still see Orlov as that turnover, high-event player that he was when he first came to Washington, then that’s all you are ever going to see. Yes, he still has the occasional turnover, but I don’t know how people could watch the first 14 games of the season and walk away not thinking he is an incredibly important piece of the blue line.

There's my tangent. Now back to the mailbag.

Benjamin C. writes: These lines are doing great but when will Tom Wilson go back to first line over T.J. Oshie? Also will we ever see Evgeny Kuznetsov on that 1st line again? His chemistry with Wilson and Alex Ovechkin is great. Also, do you think Kuznetsov hits 30 goals?

We obsess over the lines heading into the season and really throughout, but at the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter all that much until the playoffs. I’m not dismissing your question because I think it is an important one, but in an 82-game schedule, I think we will see a variety of different line combinations to mix things up. It’s a long season and things get stale. Coaches typically don’t settle on lines until right before the playoffs. Until then, it’s a good way to get your team’s attention.

Now, back to your question. Oshie is not going to stay on that line forever. He is 32 and has played some hard minutes in his career. I am sure Reirden would love to get him back down to the second line and reduce his minutes. For now, the team is too hot claiming a possible nine out of 10 points on their five-game road trip and Oshie has seven goals and 11 points in 14 games. While the team is hot, Reirden is not going to change things.

I am very surprised we have not seen more of the Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, Wilson line since the 2018 Cup run. The team has not utilized that trio all that often since then which, after you win a Cup with it, you would think they would want to see more of.

That playoff run was seen as Kuznetsov ascending to take over as the team’s top center, but last season proved that was not yet the case. He is going to have to earn top-line time before he takes it from a player as important as Backstrom. He’s not there yet.

Kuznetsov so far has five goals in 11 games. That puts him on pace for about 36. I am not sure he will get that many, but 30 is certainly in play. Considering I predicted before the season that he would lead the team in points and crack 100, I am going to ride with Kuznetsov and say, yes, he gets 30 goals. I’m not so sure that he will lead the team any more thanks to what John Carlson just did in October.

Douglas F. writes: Lars Eller has had a good offensive season so far and is doing well in the faceoff dot. Obviously he won't overtake Evgeny Kuznetsov or Nicklas Backstrom but is there a way that the Caps could think of moving Kuzy to the wing and moving Eller up to the 2nd line?

No. Center is arguably the most important position in the game. Kuznetsov is one of the top 30 centers in the league at the very least. He’s bad at faceoffs and he needs to improve defensively, but he is still one of the best players at one of the most important positions. You do not move him to wing where he would be less effective so you can promote Eller who is a good player to plug in when necessary, but who is not a top-six center.

@BelleLegacy on Twitter writes: Since I watch the Caps on TV only, never live, it’s hard to see what Evgeny Kuznetsov does differently from Nicklas Backstrom when it comes to positioning/defensive play. What do you see that Kuznetsov needs to do to better emulate the great #19? Any progress this season?

You hit the nail on the head when you mentioned positioning because that is the biggest aspect for forwards playing defense. It’s about positioning and knowing where to be and what to do when you do not have the puck. There have been times in the past where Kuznetsov was just floating in the defensive zone, seemingly skating around waiting for an opportunity to head back down the ice to the offensive zone. Positioning means getting in the way of passing and shooting lanes. I am not saying he has to be Hal Gill or Quinton Laing out there when it comes to blocking shots, but he does need to at least be positioned in a way that can make it harder for opponents to do what they want to do. Kuznetsov’s career-high in even strength blocked shots is 29. Backstrom’s career-low is 25 and that has more to do with him being in the way with his great positioning and how he can ready a play.

Kuznetsov was always quick out of the defensive zone when it looked like the Caps had the puck. Sometimes teams can win those puck battles right back so it is not helpful when your center is already halfway down the ice and your team is back on defense again. He has not been good about winning board battles and that includes on the forecheck. And then there were the faceoffs. At the end of the day, acenter cannot be trusted to start in the defensive zone if he is winning only 38.7-percent of his faceoffs like Kuznetsov did last year.

Having said that, Kuznetsov has shown incredible progress thus far. He is playing much more physically and actually delivered a couple of good hits against Toronto on Wednesday. I watched that game with Brent Johnson who at one point made a comment about Wilson throwing his body around and did a double-take when he realized it was actually Kuznetsov. I like how he is battling along the boards. His faceoffs have improved dramatically as well at 47.5-percent. That’s still not great, but you take that over the 38.7 from last year.

Nathan S. writes: What's with the NHL's desire to hurry and start the season in so early October now and then have long layoffs such as the Rangers having six days off and playing a game and then having another five days off? Does the NHL just rate so low in priorities that everything from boy band concerts to pre-season NBA gets higher priority?

The NHL starts the season at the very beginning of October to account for the bye week that is now built into every team’s schedule. What happened with the New York Rangers this season was an anomaly. Capital One Arena is a busy place, but when the arena is not available you schedule road games. The Caps’ always take their western Canada road trip early in the season when the horse show comes to Washington. Even if Madison Square Garden was booked solid, the schedule makers should have just sent the Rangers packing for a road trip. I don’t know why they didn’t, but their schedule is not a reflection of the low priority of NHL teams.

Now if I was making the schedule, I would start camp early September and the season in mid-to-late September. I’d get rid of the bye weeks and just have zero back-to-backs and get the playoffs more distance from the NBA playoffs. But that’s just me.

Thanks for all your questions! Part 2 of the mailbag will be coming on Thursday. If you have a question you want to be answered in the next mailbag, send it to CapitalsMailbag@gmail.com or use #CapsMailNBC on Twitter.