Photo credit:© Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports
Andrei Kuzmenko’s ice-time shouldn’t be cause for concern…yet
1 year ago
Depending on one’s perspective, it can seem like a lot of time or very little.
If you’re waiting in line at the grocery store, ten minutes is an eternity.
If, on the other hand, you’re an NHL forward receiving just ten minutes in ice time, it sure doesn’t feel like very much time.
That’s the perspective of one Andrei Kuzmenko, who has watched his playing time dwindle ever since head coach Rick Tocchet took over the Vancouver Canucks.
Saturday morning’s game against the Detroit Red Wings saw Kuzmenko hit the ice for just 10:35, his second-lowest outing of the season. It was the lowest amount of ice time given to any Canuck on that day, and that’s becoming a bit of a trend.
In fact, of the seven games that Kuzmenko has played for Tocchet as of this writing, Kuzmenko has played 13:06 or less in four of them. And the trend is downward. If Kuzmenko isn’t quite being benched as of yet, he’s close.
Prior to Tocchet’s arrival, Kuzmenko was averaging more than 16 minutes a night.
Clearly, Tocchet is intentionally sending Kuzmenko some sort of message, but the full scope of his intentions has some in the fanbase worried.
Now, these fears are not entirely unfounded. Tocchet does have a bit of a reputation for clashing with and alienating certain high-skilled players who don’t exactly match his profile of what a hockey player should be. One of his current charges, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, is a perfect example of that.
So, when fans see Tocchet benching Kuzmenko and his 44 points in 52 games, there’s naturally some concern that this is more of the same.
But worry not, because it’s not more of the same…not yet, anyway. The circumstances surrounding the grounding of Kuzmenko are unique enough to give Tocchet the benefit of the doubt for now, and they may even border on understandable.
If this treatment were to extend for several weeks or months, that might be another thing altogether. In this moment, however, we can safely assume that Kuzmenko’s reduced minutes are only temporary, and are a case of Tocchet trying to fix one or more issues that he perceives in Kuzmenko’s game, and to encourage improvement in one or more important areas.
This is, undoubtedly, a good thing.
Despite his offensive success, Kuzmenko is still a first-year NHL player, and one who spent his developmental years in the KHL, a very different league structurally. That’s inevitably going to result in a player with some holes in his game.
If this were an ordinary rookie, there might be time for more patience. But Kuzmenko is not an ordinary rookie. He’s not even officially a rookie! He just turned 27, and is already at an age at which most NHLers are considered finished products. Thus, the amount of time that Kuzmenko has left to truly learn or grow could be limited.
It’s not exactly true in hockey that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but it’s certainly more difficult. The longer Kuzmenko continues in the NHL without cleaning up his bad habits, the greater chance they have of becoming permanent shortcomings. One can safely assume that Tocchet is wishing Kuzmenko to put in the work now so that it can pay off in the immediate future.
Fortunately, the notion of running Kuzmenko out of town is no longer much of a factor. He came into the season on a one-year contract that expired into UFA status, and so there was at first a real impetus to make sure Kuzmenko was happy and comfortable in Vancouver. And, sure, that’s still an impetus — who doesn’t want to see more of this guy’s smile?
But it’s certainly not as much of a dire priority as it once was now that Kuzmenko has already been inked to a two-year, $5.5 million AAV extension. If there’s a time to risk pissing Kuzmenko off in the hopes of improving his overall game, now is the time. He can’t un-sign that contract.
Again, this line of thinking only works if the benching eventually stops, and Kuzmenko is able to work his way into the coach’s good graces. The good news is that there’s every reason to believe this is only a temporary situation.
Since signing that extension, the likelihood of Kuzmenko being traded anytime soon has plummeted. But the likelihood of several other prominent Canucks forwards being dealt between now and the March 3 Trade Deadline has only increased.
All of Brock Boeser, Conor Garland, JT Miller, and Anthony Beauvillier are arguably “on the block,” and maybe more than that. The odds of all of them still being Canucks on March 4, 2023, are slim.
On the one hand, their departure almost guarantees that Kuzmenko slides right back into the top-six, easing the fretting about his demotion being permanent. On the other hand, the potential for a trade also helps explain why Tocchet might have seen this as the perfect opportunity to teach Kuzmenko some hard lessons.
The formula isn’t that hard to figure out: juice up the ice-time of those players who might be traded soon, so as to increase their production and thus their trade value. At the same time, reduce the ice-time of a player who will not be traded, so as to encourage an increase in their effectiveness before they’re asked to step back into a top-line role.
From that perspective, it’s a win-win.
It’s also worth noting that not all of Kuzmenko’s missing ice time has been reallocated to the tradeables. Some of it has also been handed to recent Abbotsford call-ups in the form of Phil Di Giuseppe, Nils Åman, and especially Vasily Podkolzin. After years of complaints about young players not getting a fair chance after being called up to the big leagues, isn’t this sort of thing exactly what fans have been clamouring for? If Podkolzin was to get a real shot at re-earning his spot in the lineup, those minutes had to come from somewhere. Again, there will be plenty of room on the ice for both Kuzmenko and Podkolzin after the deadline. But until then, they’ve got to share, and Kuzmenko has clearly already had his turn.
In short, there’s as of yet little reason to truly worry about the Kuzmenko/Tocchet situation, and perhaps even some reason for cautious optimism. If this sort of treatment continues well past the Trade Deadline and the departure of other scoring forwards, perhaps it’s time to start worrying then.
But not yet.
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