From uncertain import to borderline superstar

They were just teenagers, and playing hockey on an international stage was a rung on a ladder. This was 2011 in Buffalo, the World Junior Ice Hockey Championships. That Russia reached the final wasn’t a surprise, because Russia is always talented. Canada, though, played for the gold medal for the 10th consecutive time. Canada took a 3-0 lead into the third period. Canada was going to win.

And then Evgeny Kuznetsov, all of 18, emerged from the Russian dressing room.

“He kind of came out and just took the game over,” said Brett Connolly, a forward on that Canadian team. “We didn’t have a chance at that point.”

Kuznetsov was a young centerman with a preternatural ability to get the puck and hold it, skating, skating, skating until precisely the right moment – and then releasing. Now, he is doing that for the Washington Capitals in the midst of a run to the Stanley Cup Final, posting at least one point in the past 10 games, a league-best 24 points in the playoffs. Then, he did it for Russia, dishing out the primary assist on three of the Russians’ five third-period goals that led to an unlikely victory.

“What he’s doing now, he was doing then,” Connolly said. “You see it when he gets the puck. He’s such a confident guy. Everybody sees that in his attitude. You know he’s not afraid to take guys one-on-one. He believes he’s better than anybody he plays against.”

These Stanley Cup playoffs – which continue with Game 1 of the finals Monday night in Las Vegas – have been a revelation for the Capitals as a franchise as a whole, and for this specific group. But they also have served as a platform for Kuznetsov to complete his transition from uncertain import to borderline NHL superstar.

“If you’re going solely off pure talent,” veteran forward T.J. Oshie said, “I think he’s got to be in the top seven – maybe top five, in my opinion.”

Yet when he first arrived late in the 2013-14 season, he erred as often as he impressed. He was, it turns out, overwhelmed – not by the hockey, but by his radically altered circumstances.

“It’s a different game, yes, but it’s also a different lifestyle,” Kuznetsov said. “I don’t think that time was going to be easy. It was a pretty hard time for me.”

And he had waited until he thought he was prepared to make that transition. In the summer of 2010, Kuznetsov had just turned 18 and completed his first year with his hometown team – Chelyabinsk Traktor of Russia’s top-level KHL – when the Capitals took him with the 26th pick in the NHL draft. “We got our pick,” then-general manager George McPhee said at the time. “It was unanimous.”

But that pick may have, in a roundabout way, contributed to McPhee losing his job in Washington – and not because Kuznetsov didn’t fulfill his promise. The Capitals didn’t expect the teenager to come to Washington right away. But in 2012, he signed a two-year deal to remain with Chelyabinsk – two years the Capitals expected him to help them, not develop – out of their control – with someone else.

“I didn’t think I was ready,” Kuznetsov says now. “I needed time.”

McPhee and his coach in Washington in 2013-14, Adam Oates, didn’t have time. Kuznetsov’s arrival that March was disjointed, a talented piece added to a crumbling puzzle. He was thrown in midstream to a team that was struggling to remain in the playoff race. He had no NHL training camp as a foundation. He had no NHL games on which to build. He had no English to help him find his way.

“It’s probably the toughest part for a Russian guy, to change the lifestyle,” Kuznetsov said. “For us, it’s everything the opposite. Everything. You like light beer, I like heavy beer. You like [to wake] up at 6 o’clock in the morning. I like to fall asleep after 12 o’clock. I like to sleep until 10 o’clock, don’t talk to anybody before 12. It’s a little bit tough for me.”

The on-ice adjustments were the same – both expected and difficult, typical for a player coming from Europe. The ice sheet is smaller. The play is more physical. Time and space are at a premium. Plus, Kuznetsov was transitioning from wing to center, where the Capitals hoped to take advantage of his playmaking ability.

Kuznetsov’s first full season was Barry Trotz’s first as Washington’s coach. As Kuznetsov struggled with consistency as a rookie, Trotz tapped in to Kuznetsov’s affinity for another Russian centerman, former Detroit star Pavel Datsyuk. Trotz wanted Kuznetsov to persist as Datsyuk did, “staying on the play, keeping plays alive a little bit longer, so they don’t flame out – one and done.”

“This league,” Trotz continued, “is all about that. You’re gonna lose some pucks and then you got to get them back real quick. If you’re able to do that, those are when the breakdowns happen a lot of times because everybody starts transitioning the other way.”

From the first time you see him, Kuznetsov’s strength is obvious: his skating. It’s not just that he’s fast, but that the speed seems to come without effort. “He doesn’t look like he’s moving,” Connolly said, “but he’s the fastest guy on the ice.” When he arrived, though, he had to learn that skating went both ways, that if he was going to skate so well toward the offensive zone that he had to also skate back. He had to learn that because of his natural ability, he could create offense by playing defense.

“He’s learned how many opportunities he gets by coming back hard,” veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “And when he does come back hard, he’s such a good skater that now when there is a turnover he has all that speed – and defensemen have no choice but to just back off him.”

Thus, the dilemma: Play him, and he’ll go by you. Back off, and he can hold the puck for what seems like an hour, waiting to find the perfect pass. He can create a moment, and when one is created for him, take advantage.

Take overtime, then, in Game 6 of the second round against Pittsburgh, the Capitals’ nemesis. Washington was already playing without mainstay center Nicklas Backstrom, out with a hand injury, as well as forward Tom Wilson, who plays right wing on Kuznetsov’s line – opposite captain Alex Ovechkin. With a lineup that featured five rookies, the Capitals felt thin. Kuznetsov, though, asserted himself.

“I don’t know if anything was said to him,” Oshie said. “I know no one really said it to him in the locker room, but he kind of took it upon himself to truly take over the game.”

This wasn’t the junior Russian team. This was an NHL team, half a world away from home, at the most critical juncture since he had arrived in North America. The awkwardness of not knowing English, of not understanding American customs, were long gone. He is comfortable on his team and with his teammates.

“This room, actually, I’m more quiet,” he said one morning during the Eastern Conference finals against Tampa Bay, surveying Washington’s dressing room. “For me, it’s like a church.”

Kuznetsov would not be considered among Washington’s core leadership group – spots reserved for longtime NHL players such as Ovechkin, Backstrom, Orpik, Oshie and Matt Niskanen. But by this point, he had also found his place in how the team operates – which can be both hilarious and, honestly, hard to decipher.

“Some would say he’s the most interesting man in the world,” Wilson said. “He’s got multiple faces he can put on, a character for sure… . Sometimes you don’t really know what he’s talking about.”

Which Kuznetsov understands. “Sometimes guys don’t probably get my jokes,” he said. That’s fine. They get his hockey.

And so in overtime of that sixth game against the Penguins, Kuznetsov skated hard back as Pittsburgh pushed the puck up the ice. But there came the turnover, and then the puck ended up with Ovechkin, who poked it forward to Kuznetsov, and with four powerful strides he was free of Penguins defensemen Brian Dumoulin and Kris Letang.

Kuznetsov scored the goal that pushed the Capitals to their first Eastern Conference finals in 20 years. And when he finished it, he celebrated by flapping his arms as if they were wings, a bird celebration he first pulled out in the 2017 playoffs. On social media, fans had urged him to use the celebration again. But it was really his daughter Esenia, who just turned 3, who was at the root.

“You don’t usually teach kids stuff like that,” Kuznetsov said. “But my wife said, ‘She is waiting.’ So in my house? She learns some cool stuff.”

It is another indication of how far Kuznetsov has come from those days on the Russian junior team. He can still take over a game. Now, he has taken over a new life. Next fall, Esenia will go to preschool in the U.S. Her father has an eight-year contract worth $62.4 million. He has not altered his lifestyle to fit what Americans might see as normal. But he is pushing, both to develop his game, his style – and his English.

“I would put it like this: The stage I am right now, I can speak and feel pretty comfortable,” he said. “But one day, my daughter is going to come up and ask me something, and I have to be able to answer her. I have to learn more.”

The hockey, by now, is the easy part. Evgeny Kuznetsov has arrived, and the Capitals’ push to the Stanley Cup Final is proof of that.

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