NEW YORK, NY – Over the last three months, the saga of Washington Capitals megaprospect Evgeny Kuznetsov has gripped the DC fanbase. With Kuznetsov set to be a free agent at the end of the 2011-12 Kontinental Hockey League season, the hope among many was that the winger would take his talents across the Pacific Ocean to begin his NHL career with the Capitals. With his dazzling skill set, glowing scouting reports, and dominance of international tournaments, the anticipation was high, and for good reason.
However, in early May, Kuznetsov announced that he planned to stay in Russia playing for Traktor Chelyabinsk for the next two seasons. The decision is not yet 100% official because Kuznetsov has not signed his new deal with Traktor yet, but every indication is that he has made up his mind, and is not coming, at least not next season. In mid May, Capitals General Manager George McPhee confirmed as such, saying that it “doesn’t look like” the 20 year-old will be under contract in DC next fall.
The reasons given for Kuznetsov’s disappointing decision varied. The player himself said he was “not ready” to come over and play in the best league in the world, which seems fishy at best considering the way he has torn up the KHL and the World Junior Championships the last two winters. Most NHL prognosticators place his potential rookie scoring output at around 60 points. Not ready?
Others say that Kutzetsov wants to stay in Russia because the money that he will be able to earn while playing for Traktor will enable him to do what he wants to do: start a family, having been married last summer. This, also, seems to have its fishiness.
There is no doubt that Kuznetsov would be able to make a large sum of money in the KHL, upwards of $5 million a season, and most of it would be tax free. In the NHL, his maximum entry-level deal could have a value of around $9 million under the current collective bargaining agreement. That’s not as much as the KHL, but it’s certainly more than enough money to start a family with.
However, the most likely and most believable explanation for Kuznetsov’s choice involved his participation in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, a small coastal town in southwest Russia. The Winter Olympics have never been held on Russian or Soviet soil, and, much like 2010 in Vancouver, there will be tremendous pressure on the home team to win the gold medal in ice hockey. Kuznetsov, like any other Russian player, wants to make that team and be a part of the group to attempt to do what no “Red Army” Soviet team of the mid-to-late 20th century ever had the chance to do.
Which brings us to Kuznetsov’s reason for staying in Russia. It has been rumored that Kuznetsov was told by the national team that if he went to America, his chances of making the Olympic team in Sochi would go way down. This is because almost all of the best Russian players in the world are members of NHL franchises. Players like Pavel Datsyuk, Evgeni Malkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Alex Ovechkin would take up those NHL spots – and there would not be room for any more because the coaches would not have had a good amont of time to evaluate Kuznetsov. Therefore, his chances of playing in Sochi would go up if he were playing in the KHL. In addition, playing in America would eliminate the breaks built into the KHL season for international play – which enable national team coaches to look at Kuznetsov play and grow.
In other words, Kuznetsov was forced to decide between club and country. He chose country.
“…Firstly, I really want to make the Olympics,” he said to Pavel Lysenkov of SovSport. “I think we have a very strong team and I will continue to gain more experience and progress with the team.”
Even if he wasn’t directly told that his chances of making the team would be damaged if he left by the Russian team, it’s pretty obvious from that quote that the Olympics are his main motive.
It made sense at the beginning of May. Nobody liked it, but it did make sense.
Now? Not so much.
Vladimir Tarasenko is a player much like Kuznetsov – Russian, drafted in 2010, supremely talented, and hard to read when it comes to his intentions about playing in the United States or his homeland. Tarasenko, like Kuznetsov, has spent the last few seasons of his career playing in the KHL.
Tarasenko, unlike Kuznetsov, is coming to play for the NHL team that drafted him, the Blues, this upcoming season. Tarasenko’s choice was made public on Saturday when his agent confirmed to Yahoo!’s Dmitry Chesnokov that the young forward had agreed in principle to a contract with St. Louis. It will not be official until July 1st, when he is able to sign, but the agreement is there and the choice has been made.
You may be wondering how on Earth this ties in to Kuznetsov and his choice. It’s a fair question.
By most accounts, Kuznetsov and Tarasenko are almost equals in terms of NHL potential. Tarasenko outscored Kuznetsov this year in the KHL, but also played in five more games. Kuznetsov went bonkers at the World Juniors with a nine-point game against Latvia and was named to the tournament all-star team, neither of which Tarasenko accomplished. Different scouting services have one before the other, but the gap is never large.
So why would the Russian national team try and force one, but not the other? They are both very good players who could help the 2014 Olympic team bring home gold, regardless of where they play professionally in the interim. Like the first two reasons, the whole thing just seems very suspicious to me. It makes no sense that the Russian team would care to secure Kuznetsov, and not Tarasenko. It also makes no sense that Kuznetsov wouldn’t be good enough to make the team if he were to come here. The NHL is the best league in the world. Kuznetsov would get better here, not worse.
Now, it is also obviously possible that Tarasenko was given the same rumored ultimatum and told the national team that he didn’t care. But going off of what many have said about Tarasenko, he is a patriot, and would not likely have decided to come to America had it jeopardized his spot. Or maybe he just wants to be playing in the NHL more.
None of us know for sure what Kuznetsov’s true motives are, and we may never know. But at this point, you can’t help but wonder just how committed he is is to playing for the Capitals. His actions indicate that he may not be. And that is disappointing, because Kuznetsov has the potential to be an elite NHL player.
However, it is important to note that this saga has nothing to do with the fact that he is from Russia. He’s not an “enigma,” he’s not “lazy,” he’s not a “typical Russian.”
He may just not be what we all thought.
Harry Hawkings is a college student who is credentialed to cover the 2012 Stanley Cup Final for RtR. Follow him on Twitter here.