Chelyabinsk, a gritty industrial city 900 miles southeast of Moscow, has produced its share of star hockey players. Alexander Semin began his career in the Traktor Chelyabinsk organization as did former Capitals defenseman Sergei Gonchar. The newest hockey phenomenon to emerge from this factory town is Evgeny Kuznetsov, an 18 year-old forward whom the Caps selected in the first round of this year’s draft.
He looked like he was in great shape." Bruce Boudreau said on Monday, the first day of development camp. “It's not very often that you get an 18-year-old Russian coming here and you're telling him the drills and he's explaining them to other guys,” Boudreau added, referring to Kuznetsov’s guidance for Dmitri Orlov, another young Russian prospect, whose understanding of English is even more limited than his own.
In an interview with Caps Snaps in his native Russian, Kuznetsov talked about the trajectory of his still young career. “My father played hockey,” said Kuznetsov, who was born in Chelyabinsk and lived just a short walk from the local ice rink.
One of his fondest memories, he said, was skating as a young boy on the same rink with Semin, who was already a local hero. “I don’t know if he remembers that,” he added.
Kuznetsov was the captain of the Russian team at the 2010 Under-18 World Junior Championship held in Minsk, Belarus. He excelled, scoring a team high 12 points (5 goals, 7 assists). Last season also marked his professional debut with Traktor Cheylabinsk, which was an opportunity for him to play against older and more experienced players. Kuznetsov is under contract with Traktor Chelyabinsk for two more years—unless the Caps buy out the contract. But he has his heart set on the NHL.
“They are absolutely different games,” he said, referring to hockey in the NHL and Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League. “The difference is huge. More people come to games and the best players in the world are in the NHL. It is more interesting. There are very good players in Russia, too, but the level is not as high.”
So far, little considerations have impressed him. At the Caps development camp the staff has delivered his uniform and equipment to his spot in the locker room. “I have never seen anything like that in Russia. There you just go by yourself and get everything by yourself. So this is kind of unusual for me.”
Since arriving in Washington Kuznetsov has hung out with Orlov and Stanislav Galiev, making them a troika of Russian prospects who have been trying to demonstrate their best to the Caps coaches and navigate their way in the world beyond the Kettler Capitals Iceplex. “Galiev, Orlov and me, we go everywhere together.” he said.
Two things, Kuznetsov said, have taken some getting use to: a new uniform and the language. “I can get used to the uniform but I have to learn English,” he said. “I studied English at school but did not focus on it that much,” he said. “When I return to Russia I will hire a tutor and start studying English seriously.”