Caps will have to wait on Kuznetsov

Loose Pucks,Sports,Brian McNally

The Capitals could be finished with winger Alexander Semin, an unrestricted free agent whose agent this week made it clear his client isn't happy with how the team deployed him this season. No surprise that Semin felt constricted in former coach Dale Hunter's conservative system. But a lot of his teammates seem fine with it, and Washington is unlikely to hire a new coach who thinks otherwise.

Caps general manager George McPhee could make use of Semin's $6.7 million salary and add other pieces to help. In fact, he has a potential top-six replacement in the organization already with Evgeny Kuznetsov, a Russian phenom who turns 20 on Saturday and was ranked as the world's top prospect by the Hockey News this spring. One problem: Kuznetsov, the team's first-round draft pick in 2010, isn't coming over. He's decided to stay in Russia and play in the KHL for at least one more year and maybe two -- though nothing has been signed yet, apparently.

"We've talked to the agent. It doesn't appear that [Kuznetsov is] going to make it over for next season," McPhee said. "He's a young guy. He's only 20 years old so we understand why he might not want to leave yet. But at some point he'll want to come to this league. It's the best league in the world. He's a heck of a player so when he's ready to come we'll be ready for him."

McPhee has expressed concerns in the past about bad habits players can develop playing in the KHL. The reluctance here could also be from internal pressure on Kuznetsov to stick around for a better chance to make the Russian Olympic team when it hosts the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

“We like him a lot as a player. We think he’s a terrific player,” McPhee said. “But at the right time. As I said, he’s only 20. I think he can take the bad habits out of the game. On the other hand, he’s usually bigger and stronger if they come a little bit later.”

That, of course, does little to help Washington for 2012-13. McPhee said he didn’t know for sure if Kuznetsov would sign a two-year contract with his club team, Traktor Chelyabinsk. At 19, Kuznetsov had 19 goals and 21 assists in the KHL in 49 games. A knee injury knocked him out late in the regular season, but Kuznetsov returned to post seven goals and two assists in the playoffs. Traktor was eliminated in the KHL semifinals by Avangard Omsk 4-1 in a best-of-seven series. He was healthy, averaging 21 minutes, 48 seconds of ice time in the postseason after 18:59 during the regular season. At the IIHF World Championships in Sweden and Finland this month, Kuznetsov has two goals and four assists in eight games for Russia entering Saturday's semifinals. He's averaging 14:04 per game and is now teammates with Alex Ovechkin and Alex Semin, who both arrived at worlds this week.

Kuznetsov, listed at 6-foot-3, 187 pounds, finished with 26 goals and 24 assists in 61 games total. Compare that with Evgeni Malkin (57 games, 26 goals, 36 assists) at age 19 in the Russian SuperLeague - what in 2008 became the KHL -  or Alex Ovechkin (47 games, 15 goals, 18 assists) and you at least get a sense of what the Caps have here. Ilya Kovalchuck was already in his second full season in Atlanta at age 19 and had 67 goals in the pre-lockout clutch-and-grab NHL.  

Have to wait and see how long Kuznetsov’s deal with Traktor is. If it is two years, do you think about including his rights in a trade for an established NHL player? It’s understood that his value is lowered and he can’t be the center piece of a deal. But his value on May 18, 2012 also still far exceeds that of a first-round draft pick in 2013, where a team has no idea where it will be picking or who would be available. And he’s almost certainly a better prospect than what a team would get with Washington’s picks at No. 11 and No. 16 this June. If you like Kuznetsov, then you’re acquiring a player that will be 22 at the start of the 2014-15 season.

Is there a risk he’ll never come to North America? Sure. But can’t see how rebuilding teams - or teams just under new management - wouldn’t be tempted. McPhee has never been one to deal futures and he didn't appear so inclined earlier this week - compare his rhetoric about Kuznetsov on Monday to his public comments about goalie Semyon Varlamov last spring - but if he is trying to make an impact trade without gutting the NHL roster, this is a good time to strike with one elite prospect’s rights, two first-round picks and the ability to create salary-cap space with six unrestricted free agents. There won’t always be this flexibility.

Follow me on Twitter @bmcnally14


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