Andrei Kuzmenko’s early returns are exceeding the Canucks’ wildest expectations
Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
5 months ago
Midway through the final frame of the Canucks’ battle with the Calgary Flames on Wednesday, colour commentator Kelly Hrudey wanted to see a little bit more noise from one player: Andrei Kuzmenko.
“He’s been quiet, hasn’t he?” Hrudey said as Flames play-by-play commentator Rick Ball agreed. “He’s a terrific player… haven’t noticed him as much as normal.”
Perhaps Kuzmenko heard him thanks to the Scotiabank Saddledome’s low ceiling. Because later that night, he loudly announced his presence on his first NHL shootout attempt.
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Kuzmenko’s goal ended up as the shootout winner in the Canucks’ 4-3 victory over the Flames, and capped off a night where he played 15 minutes and assisted on Sheldon Dries’ game-tying goal in the second period.
The 26-year-old Russian had a lot of pressure heaped on his shoulders when he left the KHL and chose the Canucks as a free agent last offseason. He was Jim Rutherford and Patrik Allvin’s first major free agent signing, and was following a recent string of highly-anticipated KHL exports who hadn’t lived up to lofty North American expectations, like Vadim Shipachyov and Nikita Gusev.
But Kuzmenko hasn’t just lived up to those high expectations. So far, he’s exceeded them.
Kuzmenko’s 26 points in 28 games are the fourth most among all Canucks skaters. 13 of those are goals, which ties him with Elias Pettersson for second in that category.
But the points aren’t everything. Away from the puck, Kuzmenko has become a clear positive at even strength, adding a solid level of defensive value that’s become a major bonus.
This chart courtesy of Evolving Hockey shows Kuzmenko’s net positive at 5v5 has been vital to the Canucks’ success so far:
A lot of his success has been thanks to growing confidence, both from the coaching staff and himself. Since being a healthy scratch against the Bruins on Nov. 13, Kuzmenko has gone on to score 15 points in 13 games and earned opportunities to carry his own line away from Pettersson or Bo Horvat.
Earlier in the season, Kuzmenko was still learning his role in the Canucks’ lineup, leaning into being a setup man and was often tentative to shoot the puck from a distance. Over time, he’s gradually become much more willing to take the final shot when he sees the opportunity, and the points are following.
The results on the power play haven’t been nearly as fruitful for Kuzmenko, a surprising twist considering the excitement for his addition to the man advantage. On PP1 Kuzmenko has leaned into being the net-front presence, working to earn goals the hard way.
His hockey sense is rounding out nicely, whether by simply putting his stick in the right place for a deflection or finding an open lane behind the defence.
It’s clear that Kuzmenko is far outplaying his one-year, $950,000 contract, and it’s no secret if things continue this way, he’ll have a lot of negotiating power in the summer when he becomes an unrestricted free agent. But for a Canucks team that’s often struggled to find value through the free agent market, it’s a good problem for the front office to have.
There’s still work on the horizon for him, and with the Canucks rumoured to be shopping a number of his teammates on the trade wire, their reliance on Kuzmenko to win hockey games is only going to get bigger.
If the early results tell us anything, it’s that Andrei Kuzmenko is up for the challenge.
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