July 25, 2014

Caps shouldn’t expect Kuznetsov to be savior of playoff spot

After some trade deadline deals made with an eye on the future as well as three rough losses, many Washington Capitals fans began to lose hope for a seventh straight playoff appearance. Some faith, however, has been restored as the highly touted Evgeny Kuznetsov has finally come to D.C.

Kuznetsov was the Capitals’ first round draft pick in 2010, but has remained in Russia playing for Traktor Chelyabinsk in the KHL. At 21 years old, he has already compiled an impressive resume with 65 goals and 81 assists for 146 points in 210 KHL games. He has also represented Russia twice in the IIHF World U18 Championship, three times in the IIHF World U20 Championship, once in the senior IIFH World Championships and likely would have made the Olympic team had it not been for an injury.

What does he bring to the Caps? Kuznetsov is a genuine top six forward. His game is characterized by great stick-handling skills, great skating and patience. He creates plays not just because he is incredibly skilled, but because he is very smart.

The Caps are in desperate need of a top six forward and, with all due respect to Dustin Penner, Kunetsov fits the bill. He is a guy who can generate offense and put points on the board.

As good as he is, however, it is important for Caps’ fans not to pencil the team into the finals just yet.

With all European players, Kuznetsov will have to get used to the smaller ice surface of the NHL and that could be a tough transition. His best plays all come from his ability to stickhandle and skate around opposing defenses. He is not going to have as much room to maneuver here and that may temper his offensive impact until he can adjust.

While the KHL is a prominent hockey league, the NHL still remains the best league in the world. Kuznetsov has been able to pull off some truly spectacular plays, but much of that comes from the fact that he is so clearly superior to his opponents. Kuznetsov won’t be able to skate circles around his competition anymore. He clearly has tremendous skill, but NHL caliber defensemen won’t be as easy to beat.

Kuznetsov also has a small build. The Caps’ website lists him as 6’0” and 172 lbs. He is almost certainly bigger than that now with some reports listing him to be as big as 6’3”, 200lbs. Most likely, he is somewhere in between the two extremes. The point is that in terms of weight, he is one of the smallest players on the team.

The NHL is a much more physical league than what Kuznetsov is used to and we’ve already seen how agitators can get under the skin of European players and force stupid penalties and careless mistakes (remember Alexander Radulov?).

A much heralded 21-year-old prospect with incredible stickhandling and offensive skills coming from the KHL is going to have a target on his back. Kuznetsov, however, isn’t coming into the NHL with the same massive frame that Alex Ovechkin was when he made his debut. You could not simply knock Ovechkin off the puck, but they are going to try to do just that to Kuznetsov. Teams are going to play him physically and he’s going to take some hits. The question is how will respond?

The answer is that no one knows. That’s what makes getting him onto the ice as quickly as possible so important. Just like the moves made at the trade deadline, Kuznetsov’s debut looks like a short-term boost, but it really is about setting up the team for next season.

The transition to the NHL from the KHL can be difficult not just because of the differences on the ice, but also because of the culture shock of coming to a new country and trying to make it feel like home. Ilya Kovalchuk and more recently Rostislav Klesla (the Caps dodged a bullet by quickly trading him to Buffalo) show that some players are never truly able to make that adjustment.

Bringing Kuznetsov to the NHL now is more about getting him used to America and the NHL for next season than it is about pulling off a miracle run into the playoffs. This gives him a chance to go through all the growing pains now and get the adjustment period out of the way before next season.

Let’s be real, the Capitals’ blue line remains a major weakness and until it is addressed this offseason, the team can only go so far. Kuznetsov’s inclusion won’t be enough to mask that. He can, however, provide a spark this team might be able to use to propel them into the playoffs.

Before the third period against Phoenix on Saturday, the Caps played eight straight periods of bad hockey and looked like a defeated team. Will the Caps be able to respond to the renewed excitement over their Russian prospect?

Kuznetsov is expected to make his debut Monday night at Verizon Center. It seems only fitting that it should come against the rival Pittsburgh Penguins. Though he can play either center or wing, all indications are that he will play left wing.

I would not expect him to start on the top line right away. As good as he is, giving him top line minutes is akin to throwing him to the lions. As he gains more experience and confidence, his minutes will increase, but initially I expect head coach Adam Oates to be cautious. I would look for probably somewhere in the 15 minute range for his debut.

Kuznetsov has been described by some analysts to be the best hockey player in the world not playing in the NHL. That praise is about to be put to the test.

%d bloggers like this: