Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
Haven’t Canucks fans learned not to give up on slumping players so quickly by now?
2 months ago
Andrei Kuzmenko scored the opening goal in Tuesday’s match against the Tampa Bay Lightning. It was his first goal or point in five games, and his first in the month of December. It was also his fifth goal, and his 16th point, through 26 games played in the 2023/24 season.
Last year, when Kuzmenko hit Game #26, he did so with 13 goals and 25 points under his belt, all in his first year of North American hockey.
It’s clear to anyone and everyone that Kuzmenko is in the midst of a slump. One of those dreaded sophomore slumps, to be specific.
It’s something that has led to a ‘cooling off’ of many Kuzmenko-related opinions.
Chief among those who seem to have lost a little faith in the 27-year-old is head coach Rick Tocchet, who has scratched Kuzmenko on multiple occasions this season and now has him skating on the fourth line with Nils Åman and Phil di Giuseppe.
But that’s just coach stuff. Motivational tactics, tough love, that sort of thing. The message of this article is not intended for Tocchet’s ears (though we like to believe he’s an avid CanucksArmy reader).
The message is instead attended for those in the local fanbase and mediasphere that have once again taken the uneven development path of a player to openly give up on that player, and to start freely fantasizing about that player’s departure from Vancouver.
And we’re willing to be fairly explicit as to what the message is. It’s this:
Haven’t the Canucks faithful learned not to give up on slumping players quite so quickly by now?
It is, after all, a lesson that they’ve been taught several times over in past years.
Let’s start our term down short-term memory lane with the player who also scored against Tampa Bay this week (and, in fact, did it three times over): Brock Boeser.
Boeser hit Vancouver at the tail-end of a dark time for the Canucks and their followers. His four goals in nine games during a late-season 2017 audition were a beacon in the darkness, and he followed that up with a 29-goal, 55-point rookie campaign that was only cut short by an unfortunate injury.
But unfortunate injuries would be a theme for Boeser, and that hot start to his career would start to wear off soon enough. His point-rate dipped a little as a sophomore, from 0.89 down to 0.81, and that downward trend continued into year three, where Boeser posted just 16 goals and 29 assists through 57 games.
Then came the difficult 2020/21 campaign, when Boeser stepped up in the midst of several other tough years for his teammates to lead the team in scoring with 23 goals and 26 assists in just 56 games.
But two tough years of his own would follow. The 2021/22 season saw Boeser post the lowest production of his career at 0.65 points-per-game. That rate would rebound a little to 0.74 for 2022/23, but that still paled in comparison to his rookie heights, and by that point the doubters were out in full force.
Calls to trade Boeser were loud over the past calendar year. Many appeared to have given up on that potential he flashed earlier in his career already, with Boeser having just crested 25 years old.
Well, look at him now. That aforementioned hat trick moved Boeser into a tie for the league lead in goals with 21, and he’s currently sporting a 1.21 PPG on the 2023/24 season, almost 30% higher than his previous career best.
Anyone who voiced an opinion that involved Boeser having “peaked” or “lost it” or “being overpaid” is now picking the crow out of their teeth. Happily, it should be said, in most instances.
But it’s food for thought all the same, and hardly the only meal of similar quality that folks in Vancouver have had over the past few years.
The lesson is even more clear-cut when it comes to two of Boeser’s teammates in Quinn Hughes and Elias Pettersson.
Both Hughes and Pettersson held out for some extensive contract negotiations in the summer of 2020, with Hughes coming off his rookie campaign and Pettersson his sophomore.
What ensued following a truncated training camp was a pair of twin slumps. Hughes saw his production rate drop only a little, from a 0.78 PPG to a 0.73, but also saw his defensive game implode and felt the scorn of observers for it.
Pettersson, however, had it worse. Injuries compounded his contract-distracted offseason, and he would wind up playing in only 26 games, managing a comparatively paltry 10 goals and 11 assists.
Cold starts would follow in the 2021/22 season for the both of them. And then…
Hughes rebounded to break scoring records in 2021/22 and then earn Norris votes in 2022/23. He’s since carried that momentum to the top of the NHL’s defense point-charts and the overall league lead in assists. Within a calendar year of his “slump,” Hughes is now widely considered one of the three best defenders in the world.
Pettersson, meanwhile, turned his 2021/22 season all the way around into a scorching finish, then followed that up with a 102-point effort in 2022/23, along with some Hart and Selke votes. Some have suggested that he’s not playing quite as well through the first chunk of 2023/24, but his PPG of 1.28 is exactly the same as it was last year, and Pettersson does seem to be “waking up” of late.
You won’t find many today that will admit to have being on the “Trade Hughes” or “Dump Pettersson” train, but many were, and we remember. We remember, specifically, the brief proliferation of “Hughes for Ty Smith” trade proposals. Yes, the same Ty Smith that has since cleared waivers on multiple occasions.
We’re not here to shame. We’re just here to gently suggest that fans and media alike learn not to be so hasty.
Boeser, Hughes, and Pettersson aren’t the only examples here, either.
Thatcher Demko had a slow finish to 2021/22 and a dreadful start to the 2022/23 season. By some measures, he was the worst starting goaltender in the league through the early going. Then an injury hit, and he was out of the picture for awhile, and the same ol’ calls started to come out of the woodwork. Some folks said that the likes of Bubble Demko would never been seen again. Some were ready to hand the reins off to Arturs Silovs (and not just David Quadrelli!).
Flash-forward to today, and Demko is back on his old business, putting together a season well-worthy of Vezina consideration.
Heck, we could even lump Nils Höglander into the mix. He impressed as a 20-year-old rookie with 13 goals and 14 assists in 56 games, but then failed to impress coach Bruce Boudreau on two successive opportunities and found himself relegated to Abbotsford. Where it appears that many believed his career would remain thereafter. Plenty of people seemed to just forget about Höglander while he was out of sight and out of mind, and many of those who did remember were all too happy to throw him into trade proposals.
Today, Höglander is back on the roster, back in the top-six, and thriving.
Thankfully, the Vancouver Canucks organization did not give up on any of these players. But several individuals surrounding the team sure did.
Which is why we’re preaching patience with Kuzmenko.
Think of it this way. When was the last time someone had a multitude of success early on in their career with the Canucks, and then slumped, and then never recovered from that slump?
Ben Hutton, perhaps? Brandon Reid? Jason King?
The point is that the latter scenario is far more rare than the latter, and yet it seems to be what a large portion of the fanbase and mediasphere expects to be the outcome each and every time a Canuck slumps.
Sure, Kuzmenko is a little bit older at this point that all of the aforementioned players were when they slumped. He’s also in his second season of North American ice, period, and has encountered a coach with whom his playstyle doesn’t exactly jive. These are barriers, but they are not insurmountable, and they certainly don’t do anything to erase the potential of a player who scored 39 goals in his first taste of NHL hockey.
So, if you can muster it, hold out faith for a Kuzmenko turnaround.
Recent history would suggest that the odds are in his favour, and it’s always fun to say “I told you so,” especially about a positive outcome.
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