Photo: Jonathan Daniel
During the Caps’ West Coast road swing earlier this month, center Evgeny Kuznetsov met up with Igor Rabiner of Sport-Express. Their conversation was fascinating.
Kuznetsov speaks about his ‘close’ friendship with Alex Ovechkin, how the team celebrated Ovi’s 500th goal, and if it’s important to him to be the top-scoring Russian in the NHL. Hint: it’s not.
“Maybe getting points is nice, but I would gladly trade them all for a chance to play in the Stanley Cup final,” Kuznetsov said. “And I believe any player would say the same. Honestly.”
Kuznetsov and Rabiner also spoke about Ovechkin’s prediction that his protege will one day score 40 goals in the NHL.
Igor Kleyner has your translation.
Did you, Dmitry Orlov, and Stanislav Galiev really go to Van Gogh exhibition? And if so, why wasn’t Alex Ovechkin with you, wouldn’t he be the main exhibit there?
Evgeny Kuznetsov: Of course not [laughing]. It was just a joke, inspired by Sergei Shnurov and his song “in Louboutins” [Ed Note: “Exhibit” is a very popular and hilarious single recently released by Shnur.] We didn’t go anywhere.
And in general, do you hang out a lot with Ovechkin – or does he stick to different circles of society? Is Ovi a superstar on the team, or an equal among equals?
Evgeny Kuznetsov: First of all, he is a close friend who always supported me. Anybody who knows him will tell you: he is a simple guy and very easy to get along with. He doesn’t wear a crown on his head, and that’s what makes him a strong person. We hang out together all the time.
How did the team celebrate his 500th goal?
Evgeny Kuznetsov: Everybody jumped on the ice, we were all so happy. We had a dinner afterwards, which he appropriately picked up the tab for. It’s a big event!
Would you like to play on his line more often, and not just on power play?
Evgeny Kuznetsov: Ha, that’s complicated! You need to be better than Backstrom. That means — the best center in the league. They have been playing together for so long, they can see each other with their backs.
Ovechkin is convinced that you can score 40 goals in a season. Do you agree?
Evgeny Kuznetsov: I appreciate his kind words, but it is difficult to score that many goals in this league. Of course I expect more from myself. But I get more pleasure from making a pass to [a teammate in front of] an open net, or from organizing a beautiful passing play with all of our players touching the puck. Even if we don’t score, I’ll enjoy it more than scoring myself.
Is it important for you to become the top regular season point producer among the Russians in the NHL? You are pretty close to that.
Evgeny Kuznetsov: No. you can pick up 100 points and crash in the first round [of the playoffs]. That would result in absolutely no satisfaction from the season. Maybe getting points is nice, but I would gladly trade them all for a chance to play in the Stanley Cup final. And I believe any player would say the same. Honestly.
Can you even believe yourself in what is happening to you this season? Do you ever just want to pinch yourself? Could you even imagine this even a year ago?
Evgeny Kuznetsov: I don’t get hung up on it. Of course, any player feels good when a season is going well, and you pick up a lot of points. But it is happening first and foremost because the whole team is playing great. We have a lot of 20 goal scorers, which demonstrates the level the Capitals are on. I understand that, because last summer I started seeing things differently. Now the concept of a team means much more to me.
Evgeny Kuznetsov: Because I grew up. And also here you start looking at things a bit differently. You see how the guys play and prepare themselves, how they behave.
Was Ovechkin your example?
Evgeny Kuznetsov: Sasha, and many other guys. I talk to them, and realize that I there are people in the league to learn from. There are many experienced veterans, and very good coaches. They always talk to you, help you. They spent a lot of time with me last season. Even though you don’t even need to listen to anybody, just watch what they do and learn. But I listen anyway. I don’t want to spill any secrets, but a lot of Russians helped me understand how to behave on the ice, interact with the referees, and so on. I had constant support.
Barry Trotz told me that you got some good advice from Pavel Datsyuk. Who else?
Evgeny Kuznetsov: I have a great relationship with (former Capital) Andrei Nikolishin. He helped me a lot, sent me a lot of messages, I always listen to him. We still write to each other regularly. Nikolishin taught me a lot when I made it to the big team with Traktor, where he was the captain then. I am very thankful to him.
Nikolishin spent five seasons with the Capitals himself. What was your reaction when he was fired from the head coaching job with Traktor last November?
Evgeny Kuznetsov: I was upset. He is my mentor. But hockey is business. I really liked the way he responded to losing his job. I won’t tell you any details. But he accepted reality and stayed positive. That’s why he was given the new job with Amur to nobody’s surprise. I follow them, and I think he is a good coach with a great future.
During those difficult early moments of your career with Washington, did you ever lose confidence in yourself and start thinking about returning to Russia?
Evgeny Kuznetsov: The thoughts were flying in my head all the time. But I have friends who support me during difficult times. When everything is going well, you take them for granted, don’t even notice it. But the real appreciation comes when the times are hard – and they find the right words. Nikolishin, by the way, was the one who gave me a lot of support then.
What about another coach from Chelyabinsk with whom you started your professional career, Andrei Nazarov – are you in contact with him?
Evgeny Kuznetsov: Unfortunately, not. But I would love to. I am very thankful to him as well. He gave me a good schooling in life. Sometimes, he would tell me things, and I would take them as jokes, and then they came true.
Evgeny Kuznetsov: That’s personal. But when we meet, I will shake his hand. He is a very good guy.
Is there some kind of Chelyabinsk fraternity in the NHL?
Evgeny Kuznetsov: I think there is one in the whole hockey world. There are a lot of us from Chelyabinsk, and we try to support each other. We even speak alike – there are some words understood only by those who lived in Chelyabinsk. Mostly unprintable ones [laughing].
How did you react to the story about Slava Voynov?
Evgeny Kuznetsov: What can you do? We don’t know exactly what happened. It is always upsetting when your friend and hockey player cannot play hockey. I am glad that he is playing now, and things are working out for him. I hope everything gets resolved and he can return to the NHL.
How did you deal with the passing of Valery Belousov?
Evgeny Kuznetsov: That is too personal. I don’t want to talk about it.
If you could go back in time – would you have left for Washington a year earlier?
Evgeny Kuznetsov: No, I would not change anything in my life. If it weren’t for that season, maybe I wouldn’t be playing here now. Never regret anything, even a single day!
Had you remained with Traktor, or in Russia in general – do you think your game would have started to deteriorate? Your last season there was terrible, I remember you said in one of your interviews “Even the dogs on the street started to turn away from me.”
Evgeny Kuznetsov: It’s hard to tell. Someone would have probably helped me to climb out of that hole. A dark period can happen to anybody. When you have three surgeries in one season – that’s hard. You just come back – and another injury… difficult to deal with psychologically, when you are just 22 years old. My family – my wide, my parents — always supported me. And now with the birth of our child, it became a hugely positive factor.
Why do you think you have been avoiding injuries in the NHL – is it because of the medical personnel, your own different attitude, or something else altogether?
Evgeny Kuznetsov: My summer routine has changed somewhat. And, like I said, our baby played a big role. My life has become very streamlined: practice, home, recovery. I watch the guys here, how they train and recuperate, and every day I pick up a lot from them.
Was it different in Chelyabinsk?
Evgeny Kuznetsov: I was young, didn’t understand a lot. I thought, so what if I miss stretching once in a while – no big deal. And then you get injured. So I changed how I prepare for the game. I actually changed many things.
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