Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
Canucks Tocchet on latest tough love for Andrei Kuzmenko: “We’re coaching the hell out of him”
1 month ago
The Vancouver Canucks are the first team in the National Hockey League to 30 wins this season. They sit in first place in the overall standings. They have five players and their head coach heading to the All Star game in two weeks. They re-signed their President of Hockey Operations to a new three year contract extension. And they just beat Arizona 2-1 in front of their home fans on Thursday night.
Almost everything is going right for the Vancouver Canucks these days. Almost.
There’s the issue of Andrei Kuzmenko and that storyline simply will not go away.
Proof of that was Rick Tocchet spending five of his eight minutes with the media on Friday talking about the Russian winger who was removed from the top power play unit and benched for the entire third period of the Canucks win over the Coyotes.
Kuzmenko logged his third lowest ice-time total of the season playing only 11:02 – and, of that, 5:23 at even-strength – and watched as the Canucks locked down their latest win without him over the final 20 minutes. In two of of the last three games, he’s played 11:02 and a season-low 10:15 at Buffalo last Saturday.
“We’re coaching the hell out of him,” Tocchet explained. “Unfortunately, I just didn’t think he was skating well enough to warrant us playing him in that third period.”
When asked if Kuzmenko would be in the lineup Saturday against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Tocchet was non-committal,
“I don’t know what I’m going to do with him yet,” he said.
On Friday morning the Canucks recalled Linus Karlsson from AHL Abbotsford giving the team an additional forward on the roster. Karlson scored in both games he played on the farm this week after being demoted on Tuesday. It’s possible he could be inserted into the big league lineup giving Tocchet the option to move Nils Höglander or Sam Lafferty higher on the depth chart. If Kuzmenko does not play on Saturday, it would be his seventh healthy scratch of the season and his first on home ice.
“It’s nothing personal, it’s not a systems thing, you’ve got to participate in certain parts of the game,” Tocchet said. “I think he’s trying to understand that. You have to participate. He doesn’t have to hit a guy, I don’t care about that. I think there are certain parts of his game he has to participate. You have to do it. He’s a great kid, but he’s struggling right now. We just have to keep working with him and he has to understand.”
Some of Tocchet’s frustrations with Kuzmenko, who has now gone nine games since Christmas with registering a point, seem to stem from practice as much as they do from what the coach sees in games.
“In practice, it’s the same thing with work habits, you have to work, it’s the only way you’re going to get out of it,” he added. “This league is a tough league. If you’re in a slump, you have to work your way out of it.. You can’t just think the puck is going to come to you in these spots. You have to go to those spots. We’re going to continue to coach him.”
Tocchet says the coaching staff has devoted plenty of time to working with Kuzmenko, but was quick to point out that teammates have also done their part to try to help the struggling winger. He’s seen plenty of examples as the season has gone along.
“I see guys going up and sharing stuff,” Tocchet said. “They’ll go up and try to explain things. But you’ve got to take initiative. And it really starts in practice. If there’s a drill and you’re supposed to do it this way, you’ve got to do it that way. And you’ve got to do it with pace. Sometimes it’s hit and miss with him. I know he scored 39 goals last year, but that was last year. Different circumstances. We were a .500 team last year, we’re in a different area and you’ve got to make sure you participate in what we’re trying to do here.”
What the Canucks are trying to do is maintain their spot atop the Pacific Division and Western Conference standings. They have been involved in four straight one-goal games and they’re likely to encounter more tight-checking affairs as they work their way through the second half of the schedule.
If Kuzmenko can’t find the ice in a mid-January game against Arizona, it’s fair to wonder what his chances are of playing for Tocchet when the playoffs roll around.
The Canucks aren’t ready to wash their hands of Kuzmenko, but it’s clear Tocchet needs to see more from the player before this storyline will change.
“I have to help the guy out, too,” Tocchet added. “When you’re not scoring, it sucks. But you have to make sure, if you’re not scoring you’re rock solid in other areas. I’m not trying to make him a Selke winner or anything like that. But there are certain parts of your game you’ve got to be there for us. If you’re scoring goals, the coach can overlook a few little mistakes. But right now, it’s adversity in his life and we’ve got to help him and maybe we’ve got to do a better job of making him understand certain things.
As for simple advice the coach can offer Kuzmenko to try to find his confidence, Tocchet wants to see him shoot the puck.
“I don’t care if he’s got guys wide open, I’d like to see him shoot the puck. Maybe that would help him.”
Of course, to shoot the puck, Andrei Kuzmenko needs to be in the lineup. Stay tuned for the latest chapter in this saga when Rick Tocchet reveals whether Kuzmenko will get the chance to face the Leafs.
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