The Capitals have built a Stanley Cup contender with elite young talent. If the recent World Juniors tournament is any indication plenty more is on the way. Forward Evgeny Kuznetsov, 18, and defenseman Dmitri Orlov, 19, were key components of Russia’s first under-20 world championship since 2003. And forward Cody Eakin, 19, was Canada’s best player in the gold-medal game on Wednesday night, according to Washington general manager George McPhee. All three players were chosen by the organization in the two most recent NHL drafts.
Kuznetsov fell to No. 26 in the first round of the 2010 NHL draft. The Caps – as they have done with late first-round picks like John Carlson (27th overall), Mike Green (25th), Jeff Schultz (27th), Semyon Varlamov (23rd) and Marcus Johansson (24th) in recent years – snapped him up. Kuznetsov had the primary assist on three third-period goals Wednesday as Russia stunned Canada, 5-3, after trailing 3-0 entering the third period. Kuznetsov was the tournament’s second-leading scorer with four goals and eight assists. And his performance did not go unnoticed even outside the organization.
“The most dynamic player I saw in that whole tournament was Kuznetsov,” Toronto Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson told reporters at his team’s morning skate on Thursday. The comments are archived on Toronto’s official web site. “When he decided he was going to make a difference in the game he certainly could. And he turned the switch on in the third period yesterday, but in last five minutes of all the other games he was a dominant player.”
Kuznetsov has another year left on his contract with Chelyabinsk Traktor of the KHL. He leads another promising group of young prospects that includes, Orlov, a steady defenseman who anchored his team’s blueline, and Eakin, a strong two-way player who will almost certainly end this season with a stint at AHL Hershey after his junior season with Swift Current of the WHL concludes in the spring. He had a goal and two assists in six games with a +3 rating and played hurt during the tournament. A center by trade, Eakin also played left and right wing, was used at the point on the power play and on the penalty kill. What, the Canadian coaches couldn’t stick him in goal, too?
Orlov was a +10 with a goal and eight assists in seven games. He also has one year left on a contract with KHL club Novokuznetsk Metallurg. Both players could buy their way out of those deals and come to North America next season, according to McPhee. But if staying home for one more year is in their best interests then the Caps can wait.
“It sure is nice as a manager to go to a tournament and see talent like that, that you know will be playing for you in a year or so,” said McPhee. “Especially where we’re picking these days, late in the first round and finding some of these guys in the later rounds. So it’s nice that we’re going to have another wave of good young players coming into the team because that’s what keeps you good and makes you good for a long time.”
Hard to argue with that. CapGeek.com, an NHL salary-cap web site, lists the Caps as the league’s eighth-youngest team (average age 26.64) with the current 22-man roster, excluding injured players Boyd Gordon (27) and Matt Bradley (32). They have received contributions in 2010-11 from rookies Carlson and Johansson – who both excelled at last year’s world juniors – and fellow rookies Michal Neuvirth, Jay Beagle and Mathieu Perreault. Defenseman Karl Alzner is not a rookie anymore, but is still in his first full NHL season. And yet Washington’s rising prospects are getting rave reviews, too. How about more from Wilson:
“[Kuznetsov] was unbelievable, almost unstoppable when he got going,” Wilson said. “He looked like an [Alex] Ovechkin, or a [Alex] Semin, then you find out he's with Washington, too – and you’re like ‘Oh, you're kidding me.’ No, he was pretty dynamic.”
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