by Kevin Klein
It may not be the 2008 Capitals, whatwith Ovechkin, Semin, Federov, Kozlov, and Varlamov among their ranks, but in the early days of 2012 Capitals fans can’t help but have Russia on their minds.
Despite the departure of Sergei Federov and Viktor Kozlov (retired) and Semyon Varlamov (traded to Colorado for a first round pick), George McPhee has continued to look east for the betterment of the nation’s capital’s hockey team. And why not, when players like Alexander Ovechkin and Alex Semin have produced at the levels they have throughout their still-young careers, and when your last Russian-laden lineup took you as far into the playoffs as you’ve been in a decade?
So, in 2009 the Capitals drafted Dmitry Orlov with the 55th overall pick (26 picks after Marcus Johansson). Orlov was only 18 at the time. In 2010, the Capitals picked Evgeny Kuznetsov with the 26th pick. The thought process, on the surface, was that Orlov and Kuznetsov could maturate with their respective clubs in the KHL, then once their skillsets had appropriately developed they would come over to the big club.
Well, things happened a bit more quickly than planned— much to the delight of the Washington Capitals, the fanbase, and the entire nation of Russia.
Orlov showed up to Capitals training camp and immediately exceeded expectations. He was consistently strong during practice and preseason affairs, and was one of the final players to be cut. He went back down to Hershey before the season, but not before raising a few eyebrows around the big club.
By all accounts, Orlov was Hershey’s best defenseman for the early parts of the year, and by more than a slim margin. Then, in mid-November, Mike Green suffered a groin injury which would end up causing him to miss more than twenty games. But every cloud has a silver lining, or so they say. In the case of Green’s injury, the Capitals’ saving grace came in the form of 20 year old Orlov.
Orlov quickly stepped in, and adapted quickly. As the coaching staff recognized that young Dmity was worthy of their trust, his responsibilities were gradually heightened. In each of his first five games he saw his ice time increase, from 12 shifts for 11:56 minutes in his debut, to 23 shifts for 17:47 minutes in what ended up being Boudreau’s final game as the Capitals coach.
And just like that, only five games into his professional career, Orlov’s head coach and defensive coach were fired, and he found himself in the middle of an awkward situation, made only worse by a language barrier. But Orlov is keen, we would find out. Dale Hunter and Jim Johnson see in Orlov what Boudreau and Bob Woods saw, and Mark French before them. Dmitry is a strong skater, with a huge shot, and an offensive mind, but with the athletic ability to get back quickly and make plays skating backwards.
“I’m a real pressure guy,” Johnson spoke to the media when he was hired as the new blueline coach. “I don’t think you win at this game without pressuring. And I’m a guy that really believes you’ve gotta play a 200-foot game. It’s a speed game today. It’s not only your forecheck speed— it’s your backcheck speed, it’s your skating speed, it’s your transition speed and it’s your intellectual speed. I think if you can play with a speed game, you can have success, but you’ve got to have some structure within that speed game and that’s what Dale is really trying to implement here: to give these guys some structure when we don’t have the puck because we know what kind of skill we have when we have the puck here, so it’s getting it back as soon as we can and spending less time in our own end.”
Translation, a little over a month later: even with the return of Mike Green to the lineup, Dmitry Orlov isn’t going anywhere.
And on the very night of Mike Green’s much anticipated return, another Caps-owned Russian made a splash on a world stage. Young Evgeny Kuznetsov, in the latest of a series of heroic performance, notched a hat trick and an assist, en route the Russia’s dismissing of Canada from the World Junior Championships. This performance, of course, coming on the heels of a 9 point outing for Kuznetsov, which fell but one point short of the WJC record, set by Peter Forsberg. Not bad for company.
These performances— the impact of which is heightened, perhaps, by the C sewn to his jersey— have vaulted Kuznetsov into an international celebrity. A hero to some, a villain of the tallest order to others. In Washington DC, the buzz around Kuznetsov has swollen to a frenzy. Capitals faithful long to see Evgeni rock the red, particularly considering their thin depth at center, but the young Russian is not eligible for the NHL until next season. It remains unclear whether the Capitals plan to utilize Kuznetsov at center or on the wing. His versatility encompasses a proficiency at both positions. One thing, however, has emerged from the hoopla as a near-credence: Kuznetsov will be on the fast-track to Verizon Center. There will be no Hershey time for young Kuznya.
In fact, the only question that remains is upon which line will Evgeny begin his NHL career? Whichever it is, he will certainly have plenty of opportunity to team up with Alex Ovechkin in the friendly teasing of Karl Alzner.
Actually, between Kuznetsov and Carlson, the Caps give our northern neighbors plenty of reasons to hate us. And we’re perfectly fine with that.
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