The Andrei Kuzmenko signing was a Jim Rutherford/Patrik Allvin bragging point. That was reinforced by his excellent 39-goal rookie season and a two-year, $5.5 million per contract. That’s a good number even if his ridiculously high shooting percentage regressed. Unfortunately, not only did his shooting percentage drop, but so did his minutes. And now, his games. What happened?
Andrei Kuzmenko a Tipping Star
The Russian free agent chose to join the Vancouver Canucks despite being wooed by several other teams. With the limits to entry-level contracts forced on players, it’s not like teams can offer more cash. His one-year deal had a base of $950K and up to $850K in bonuses available. After a 20-goal, 53-point season with SKA St. Petersburgh, plenty of NHL teams made offers like Vancouver’s.
There is always some concern about mature players coming from the KHL and how well they transition. Stars who can produce are often given longer leashes by their coaches. Longer shifts are common, as is a more lenient approach towards defence. Players who take advantage of that will often have a jarring wake-up call in North America.
Kuzmenko had arguably the best possible coach for him when he joined the Canucks. Bruce Boudreau is well known as a “player’s coach” with a looser, more improvisational style for his forwards. That fit Kuzmenko well, and he showed his ability around the net. He has excellent hands and reads well off skill. With Elias Pettersson, he found spaces in front of the net for high-percentage tips and rebounds.
In his first 46 games, Kuzmenko scored 21 goals, with nine of those on the power play. Special teams played to his strength, even if it was relatively static, and he took advantage. By the time Rick Tocchet took over as head coach, the Canucks were desperate for a change. But altering one of the few parts of Vancouver’s system that worked was a fool’s errand. Kuzmenko kept his place and scored another 18 goals in the last 35 games.
New Coach, Who Dis?
One thing about bringing Tocchet in as a mid-season replacement was so he could familiarize himself with the players. That looks like it’s been successful given Vancouver’s start. But one of the simmering conflicts is how Andrei Kuzmenko is being used. The power play has changed, making it more dynamic and spreading out opportunities. That has changed his position, but isn’t the biggest change.
Tocchet has been very unhappy with Kuzmenko’s defensive play and has tried a variety of discipline to correct it. While he hasn’t lost his spot on the power play, Tocchet has moved him up and down the lineup. Four times so far in 2023-24, he’s been a healthy scratch. With eight goals and 19 points in 32 games, Kuzmenko’s production hasn’t been bad exactly, but it hasn’t been reliable. And certainly not up to his rookie season standard.
Kuzmenko’s season has included a 10-game goalless streak, and he hasn’t had an assist since November 15th. Those are not great numbers for a player in any team’s top six, and given Vancouver’s production it’s borderline shocking. He is being counted on as a scoring threat, and his new contract shows it. Not even halfway through his two-year, $5.5 million per deal and his name is coming up in trade rumours.
Replace or Repair
Teams are, according to rumour, very interested in Andrei Kuzmenko’s services. Two million dollars worth of his contract has already been paid in bonuses, and not every team has a coach with Tocchet’s style. The deal has a 12-team no-trade clause, but if someone thinks they can reenergize him, it’s a fairly low risk to take him on.
The problem with a trade is what Vancouver needs right now and where they think they are. The Canucks need a bit more scoring punch at the top of their lineup, odd as that sounds. As great a season as Brock Boeser has had, he has always been a streaky scorer. J.T. Miller and Elias Pettersson are having solid years, but teams need more than one threat per line.
The best option is the one that takes the least amount of work, of course. If Kuzmenko can regain his scoring touch and add just a bit more effort to his defence, that will make his coach very happy. Heck, using his teammates a bit more would help, too. But those are tall orders for a player who has been moved to the fourth line with some power-play time.
If the team decides that the coach and player are incompatible – something they are close to, judging by Elliott Friedman’s recent comments – a deal will be the best option. The problem there is establishing his value, but that’s for the general manager to worry about. Tocchet’s going to focus on winning as many games as he can and getting the Canucks ready for the playoffs. If he decides the best option is not to dress Kuzmenko, then Kuzmenko won’t dress.
Stay Andrei? Or Kuzmenko Go?
The team isn’t likely to retain any salary, which makes movement more difficult. But Patrik Allvin has been the most active general manager in the league this season. The odds of him not knowing Kuzmenko’s value out there are remote. And given the nature of him and Jim Rutherford, if he is traded, it will happen well before the trade deadline.
It is hard to picture what exactly Kuzmenko can do to get back into the coach’s good books. His innate skill is around goal-scoring, and that is what Vancouver is looking for. But Rick Tocchet is looking for someone who can not only score but has a stronger defensive game, too. Transforming the game of a 27-year-old NHL sophomore is going to be a challenge – especially one who doesn’t seem to be getting the message.
On the other hand, the Canucks don’t have a scorer waiting to take Kuzmenko’s place. None of the prospects are ready to step in and suddenly be a 25-goal scorer with an NHL-ready game. For a team that will – or had better – make the playoffs, that’s a step down from what Kuzmenko provides. But it’s an improvement over a player who never sees the ice.
Expect that if a deal is done involving Kuzmenko it will be in multiple parts, much like Bo Horvat eventually bringing Filip Hronek to Vancouver. And it will happen early, with the possibility that Kuzmenko doesn’t return from the current road trip.
Main Photo Credit: Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports