Caps star Evgeny Kuznetsov making himself at home

When Evgeny Kuznetsov was getting married, he wondered, "Why not do it at the rink in Chelyabinsk?"

"It was some kind of special moment for me," Kuznetsov said. "And I ask my wife, and she said it's OK, no problem."

That decision speaks volumes about the nature of a young man who just might be the NHL's best player or, at the very least, one of the game's most dynamic players.

We sometimes assume the bond between a hockey player and his roots is the domain of North Americans alone. It is not so, and especially not so for Kuznetsov.

Although he has flourished playing for the Washington Capitals -- he was named a replacement for the All-Star Game and was named first star of the month for January -- there will always be a rather sizable hole in Kuznetsov's heart, a longing for what he left behind in his Russian hometown of Chelyabinsk.

"Where I live, where I grow up ... it's probably for everybody, when they come back down to their hometown, they feel something special," the 23-year-old said during a recent interview at the Capitals' practice facility.

"I spent, like, 21 years in this town. Lots of people who love me, and I like these people too, and this is the true love because you have a hockey town, and it's like a religion. Probably every player who grows up who is from my hometown wants to come back late in their career and ... just give it to fans some kind of appreciation for that. People will love it."

Kuznetsov admitted there have been moments since he came to North America almost two years ago when he wondered about the move and whether he should have left home at all.

"Last year, like first 20 games. You know, it's a hard time, and I think about that every day," he said. "My wife see I'm losing control a little bit ... I just focus on the game and relax and practice and start to enjoy it and enjoy it more and more."

Part of Kuznetsov's strong connection to home has to do with his childhood, some of which was chronicled in a 2005 documentary by Canadian musician and hockey fanatic Dave Bidini.

Bidini spent time with a 12-year-old Kuznetsov and his parents after they moved from Chelyabinsk to Omsk so Kuznetsov could have a better hockey opportunity. That was after the death of Kuznetsov's older brother in a violent May Day celebration. In the documentary, Kuznetsov's mother talked about how her son dreamed of playing in the NHL so he could make enough money to come home and host a tournament in his brother's honor.

"That was a hard time little bit for me and my family," Kuznetsov said.

The sentiments of that 12-year-old boy have matured. As a grown man, he views honoring his brother through a different prism.

"Yeah, when you're young, you want to do something. You want to say something, right?" Kuznetsov said. "But if I want to make something for my brother, I will make it some private, family thing, and nobody [will] know about that, and nobody needs to know about it."

The family returned to Chelyabinsk when Kuznetsov was 17, and he played for the local Kontinental Hockey League team, Traktor. He can still recall his first game, playing with former NHLers such as Andrei Nikolishin and high-profile Russian players, some of whom had children Kuznetsov's age.

Also in that game, current NHL mainstays Jiri Hudler and Alexei Zhitnik played for Moscow Dynamo.

"It was like celebrity [gathering] in my first game," Kuznetsov said. "Pretty special moment, and I can score in the first shift, but I shoot on the post."

Before the 2010 NHL draft, former Capitals general manager George McPhee ran into a longtime NHL player and scout at the World Junior tournament. The scout suggested Kuznetsov was worthy of being drafted among the first two or three players that year.

It didn't turn out that way, and as the first round unfolded, it became more and more likely Kuznetsov would fall to Washington.

"We had him rated high and in every mock draft we did," said McPhee, who is now special adviser to New York Islanders GM Garth Snow. "Especially the day before the draft, we kept going over it and over it and over it. It was unanimous. 'We have to take this guy. He's just too talented not to take.'"

Kuznetsov became a Capital by virtue of the 26th pick, though he did not play his first NHL game until late in the 2013-14 season, partly because of his reluctance to come to the States. Since then, Kuznetsov has worked steadily to adapt to playing in North America and to learn the language -- something that has been aided by his sunny disposition and sense of humor.

"You just need to talk to people more and more, and your English gets better," he said.

The past summer, with his wife expecting their first child, Kuznetsov stayed in the Washington area for most of the offseason. He loves baseball and basketball. He and defenseman Brooks Orpik have become fast friends, as have their wives, who gave birth to their first children several months apart. In May, Orpik -- called "Batya," which roughly translates to "Pops" -- joined the team's Russian group and John Carlson at a local Russian restaurant to celebrate Kuznetsov's birthday.

"Traditionally, a lot of Russian players are pretty guarded and don't open themselves up," Orpik said.

Kuznetsov is quite the opposite.

"He's loud, and he's always having fun every day, joking around and laughing with the guys," Orpik said.

That comfort level, that feeling of belonging, of being part of the group, has dovetailed with the ascendance of Kuznetsov's game, and Orpik said he thinks the two are mutually inclusive.

Kuznetsov was arguably the Capitals' best skater during the 2015 playoffs. This season, Kuznetsov has emerged as a confident, gifted player with extraordinary vision. He recorded 16 points in 10 games in January to earn the top star from league officials, and his seemingly endless potential is one of the main reasons people believe this is the Capitals' year to win the franchise's first Stanley Cup.

It's not just the production. It's the manner in which Kuznetsov produces that has created such a buzz.

How special is Kuznetsov? One longtime NHL player, who is now a team executive, offered his recent scouting report on Kuznetsov: "He had the puck on his stick the whole game and made smart plays that showed patience, vision and strength. He was the best player in the game. [He] plays a 200-foot game and is used in all situations."

Three-time Stanley Cup winner Justin Williams often plays on the same line with Kuznetsov.

"You know, I don't want to take anything away from anyone else I've played with before, but he's one of the best I've played with, creatively," said Williams, who is not one for hyperbole and has previously played with the Los Angeles Kings and Carolina Hurricanes. "You have to expect the unexpected when you're with him. And he makes plays that you don't think that he sees, but he does. His imagination is going to catch teams off guard, catch players off guard, catch goalies off guard, but he works hard at it too, and that's the difference between skill guys who have success and skill guys who work hard who have success."

There is an effortlessness to Kuznetsov's game that few players possess, but that is grounded in a work ethic that has impressed teammates.

"He's pretty special," Williams said. "He keeps working toward where he needs to be. He works hard at practice. It feels like he glides on the ice when he skates, but he's much faster than me. That's why I want to give him the puck in the neutral zone and say, 'Go ahead.' But it's been fun playing with him."

St. Louis Blues star Vladimir Tarasenko played with Kuznetsov in Russia and isn't at all surprised by his breakthrough.

"He's a really big talent," the Blues' talented scorer said. "He's a really good guy. I think we played first together when I was 17 years old in the world juniors. Long time ago, you could tell he's going to be a hockey superstar, so he's playing great right now. As his early teammate, I'm really happy about him."

Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Justin Faulk played alongside Kuznetsov at the All-Star Game and sees lots of him within the Metropolitan Division.

"He's just got high-end skill," Faulk said. "He makes a lot of plays. He can hold on to the puck and doesn't force anything. [He] doesn't want to force it unless he knows he can make a play, and he does a pretty good job of that."

Kuznetsov now has a daughter, Esenia, who is eight months old. The mere mention of her brings a smile to Kuznetsov's face.

"It was hard, first couple of months. I just hold her," he said. "But later, after five, six months, it's cool time right now. Teeth coming up. She's like a little tiger. She recognizes me now when we talk on the phone and FaceTime with my wife, and she starts screaming and smiling."

Home for Kuznetsov, of course, will always be Chelyabinsk. But it's a sign of a young man maturing that maybe home is more than one place. Home can be in Washington as well.

"I just play," he said. "Try and focus day by day. So I came here. That happens. And it's a new life for me, new challenge for me. That's what I want.

"Right now, I don't want to go back. I want to stay here and enjoy it. It's like a second opportunity for me."