It wasn’t much of a surprise since Capitals general manager George McPhee himself confirmed last month that it didn’t look like top Russian prospect Evgeny Kuznetsov was going to play in North America next season. A few weeks after those May 14 comments, Kuznetsov, 20, indeed signed a two-year deal to remain with Traktor Chelyabinsk, his hometown club in the KHL. McPhee finally commented on the disappointing news during Thursday’s chat with local reporters. Kuznetsov, a forward and the team’s first-round pick in the 2010 NHL draft, No. 26 overall, was ranked the No. 1 prospect in the world by The Hockey News in March.
“We would have liked to have had him. But if he’s not ready to come over then it’s probably not a good thing for him to come over because he’s not going to play the way he needs to play,” McPhee said. “But they all come over eventually and if he comes over in a season or two he’ll be more mature, bigger, stronger, which I know was his concern when we interviewed him the year we drafted him. That he needed to get bigger and stronger. And he did. But he’s a terrific prospect and at some point he’ll play for us.”
McPhee acknowledged some good, old-fashioned pressure from his national federation could have helped sway Kuznetsov. Russia is hosting the Winter Olympics in 2014 and it’s been made clear to many of the country’s top, young stars that staying home would give them extra exposure to make that team. But he takes Kuznetsov at his word that he’s just not comfortable yet making the leap to the NHL. He will still be just 22 when his new contract with Traktor expires after the 2013-2014 season. So if he had it to do all over again McPhee would still spend the draft pick on a player with Kuznetsov's skill. Not all NHL general managers are willing to take that risk with a precious first-round choice.
"Our policy has always been take the best player. We don’t care where they’re from. Doesn’t matter," McPhee said. "Let them avoid them....People have avoided Kuznetsov. But he’s going to come over at some point and he’s going to be a heck of a player here. Obviously we were prepared to wait when we made the pick. We’d like to have him, but he’ll be here at some point and he’ll be worth it.
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