Can Evgeny Kuznetsov make the jump to the NHL from Russia?

Can Evgeny Kuznetsov make the jump to the NHL from Russia?
August 11, 2013, 10:00 pm
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The Capitals have long waited for 2010 first-round draft pick Evgeny Kuznetsov to make the leap from Russia’s KHL to the NHL.

Kuznetsov is consistently ranked one of the best prospects in the world. He had 32 points in the KHL at age 18, 40 at age 19 and 44 last season at age 20. Kuznetsov is entering the final year of a two-year contract extension he signed with Traktor Chelyabinsk, his hometown club. And he’s been invited to participate in Team Russia’s orientation camp ahead of the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

That will happen on Aug. 23 and 24. But the chances you see Kuznetsov at Verizon Center at all this season seem remote. Washington general manager George McPhee has said as much this summer – telling ESPN 980 on July 10 that there’s only “a chance” Kuznetsov could arrive here after his KHL contract ends.

The first order of business, of course, is actually signing Kuznetsov to a three-year entry-level contract. Once that happens he could jump right to the NHL. But even after that there are scheduling issues.

Chelyabinsk made it to the Gagarin Cup finals last season. Because of the three-week break for the Olympics, a return trip to the championship round would end at best on April 24, according to the KHL schedule, and as late as April 30. An appearance in the Eastern Conference finals would last until at least April 9 and could continue until April 15.

In either case, that would end any chance of seeing Kuznetsov before the conclusion of the NHL regular season on April 13. And if the Caps qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs, does it make sense to bring over a 21-year-old and throw him immediately into a postseason series? By that time of year roles are defined, positions set. Barring a rash of late injuries, it’s hard to imagine Kuznetsov dropping right into an NHL lineup after a long season in Russia.

The “chance” McPhee left open occurs if Chelyabinsk loses in the Eastern Conference semifinals, which could last until March 30, or in the first round, which would be over by March 18. The best case would be Chelyabinsk missing the KHL playoffs completely. That would theoretically leave Kuznetsov available on March 3.

But given that Chelyabinsk has listed odds of between 8/1 to 12/1 to win the KHL title among some gambling sites, it’s hard to see any scenario that has Kuznetsov available in March. Only five or six KHL teams have better odds.

If Washington made it to the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, its series would begin around April 30. But while the organization believes Kuznetsov will be an impact player, that’s a far-from-ideal scenario no matter how good a prospect he is. In the end the most likely outcome is seeing a 22-year-old Kuznetsov in the Caps’ lineup on opening night of the 2014-15 season.