Andrei Kuzmenko’s supernova of a season leaves a lot to follow up
Photo credit:© Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports
By Michael Liu6 months ago
I mean, wow.
No one expected that Andrei Kuzmenko, after spurning Edmonton to sign in Vancouver, would go on to finish with 74 points in 81 games. Heck, most people didn’t anticipate him even coming close to point-per-game after a good stint in the KHL. And yet, the Russian came over and instantly was a smash hit.
Even with a coaching change that saw him demoted down the lineup for a bit, Kuzmenko never seemed to lose his mojo for an extended amount of time. His season started strong and finished strong, leaving Canucks fans to wonder what next year has in store for him. But, in this piece, we’re taking a look back at Andrei Kuzmenko’s 2022-23 campaign.
The Kuzmenkshow, Boudreau Edition
Entering the season, Andrei Kuzmenko was pencilled in on a line alongside Elias Pettersson and Ilya Mikheyev. On paper, it was a combination of speed and skill, one that would be a 1a or 1b unit depending on the matchup the Canucks would face. Yet even with that written down, the way Kuzmenko just clicked exceeded all expectations.
The Russian almost instantly became a fan favourite both thanks to his natural goal-scoring ability and infectious smile. Even as the Canucks spluttered out of the gate, it never seemed to affect the way Kuzmenko played each night, looking dangerous whenever given the time and space. There were his hands that could stickhandle in a phone booth, his wicked wrister that seemed to get off of his stick in a microsecond. Playing with Pettersson meant that Kuzmenko’s hockey IQ could be flexed, always in the right place at the right time to tap home an easy set-up from the Swede.
At one point in time, the Mikheyev-Pettersson-Kuzmenko line was the best line in hockey. This in large part was thanks to the trio’s efficiency. They didn’t need a large number of chances to get the job done, and that meant that their rates for goals-per-60 were absolutely off the charts. And even as Mikheyev was shut down for the season to have ACL surgery, Kuzmenko continued to mesh with Pettersson. He played the most minutes by far alongside the star centre with 971:42 TOI.
That didn’t mean that Kuzmenko was just a passenger, either. The pair seemed to build off of each other in the offensive zone, retaining the puck well and generating numerous chances that put pressure on their opponents. The numbers show that Kuzmenko’s stats without Pettersson were marginally better than Pettersson’s stats without Kuzmenko, which can be chalked up to deployment differences.
What was also impressive was that Kuzmenko didn’t appear to be a liability on defence even with his penchant for offensive production. Most nights he was leading the Canucks in CF%, and would also put up matching xGA numbers that suppressed the likelihood of opponents scoring. Of course, that meant his xGF% rate was off the charts, helped out by hat tricks like these ones.
But as Vancouver continued to falter, as the wheels fell off of a rapidly diminishing campaign, the coaching change would bring about some more challenges for Kuzmenko.
The Kuzmenkshow, Tocchet Edition
It was when Rick Tocchet took over that Kuzmenko really saw some tough love. For a while, his attention to detail in his play away from the puck wasn’t the greatest, going on long shifts that proved costly at times for the Canucks. Against the Rangers in February, Kuzmenko was one of five players singled out by Tocchet as not good enough.
“He wasn’t good tonight, he was spinning everywhere,” Tocchet said in the post-game interview. “You’ve got to make sure you get the puck in deep, or that you’re in good position. You can’t be bad in every area, and we had five guys who just weren’t good.”
This came with lineup demotions, healthy scratches, and everything that went against the promised top 6 ice time that Kuzmenko wanted when he signed in Vancouver. And yet, the way that he responded to these challenges was admirable, choosing to improve and focus on becoming a better hockey player.
It showed in the stats. What’s probably a little surprising to hear is that Kuzmenko recorded better advanced stats under Tocchet than he did Boudreau. His CF% rose from 58.82 to 62.03, xGF% from 59.16 to 63.96, and HDCF% from 57.01 to 64.90. It shows that under Tocchet’s structure, Kuzmenko actually became more effective in the ice time that he was given, making the most of his opportunities on the ice.
Those soft hands and goal-scoring ability were simply given more direction under his new head coach. That creativity and swagger never went away. What stands out about this era of Kuzmenko’s first season is his willingness to be better. He wanted the feedback, wanted to improve, wanted to earn the trust of Rick Tocchet and play up to his ability. For all the faults on the ice that he might’ve shown, Kuzmenko’s attitude is something that can’t be faulted.
The end of the season brought some broken records. Kuzmenko set a new record for most goals by a Canuck in his first season (39), passing Hall-of-Famer Pavel Bure in that category. For most fans, it was a pleasant surprise in an otherwise hopeless year spinning the wheels. The two-year, $11 million extension he signed was well-earned for the campaign he put together.
But what does the future hold?
For one, expect to see a regression in his shooting percentage. Kuzmenko led the entire NHL with a 27.2 in that category, essentially scoring on over a quarter of his shots. Many analysts were expecting a crash to happen throughout the year, but it just didn’t happen with the Russian. Chances are, the 2023-24 year won’t bring such good fortune in a league whose average sits at 10.1. Maybe it drops a bit, maybe it drops a lot.
While Kuzmenko shouldn’t be expected to continue pumping goals home at the rate he was this year, what should be something to keep an eye out for is how the rest of his game holds up. He’ll probably still feature next to Pettersson next season, so look for how his positioning and play away from the puck improves given a full season of NHL experience. It’ll be interesting to watch what happens when the puck luck isn’t going his way.
Kuzmenko’s explosive first season leaves a lot to live up to. A 39-goal, 74-point campaign is elite production for a top-6 winger, and eyes will be on him to produce and perform at a similar level next year. The Russian’s 2023-24 was an absolute success, showing that he could take feedback and improve on what was already an excellent year.
So, will Kuzmenko continue to impress in 2023-24? Only time will tell.
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