Photo credit:Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
JPat: How much longer can Tocchet and Kuzmenko co-exist? It seems like the clock is ticking
2 months ago
Normally talkative, a clearly agitated Rick Tocchet addressed the media for just 3:26 in the wake of Tuesday’s late game letdown against New Jersey. Still, that was more time than Andrei Kuzmenko spent on the ice in the third period of the Vancouver Canucks’ 6-5 loss to the Devils.
And while the entertaining contest produced plenty of offence and even more talking points, there is clearly one hot button issue that stands out above all others with this hockey club right now. And that is the tenuous relationship between the no nonsense head coach and an ineffective winger that may be playing himself out of town.
Where else can this fractured relationship lead?
Kuzmenko was a healthy scratch in consecutive games 10 days ago. Clearly a message sent, right? In the four games since returning to the line-up, the 27-year-old Russian has one point – a garbage time goal against Vegas last week – and has been moved off the only spot he’s known since joining the Canucks at the start of last season alongside Elias Pettersson.
On Tuesday, he was on the ice for three of New Jersey’s four first period goals. And that was the highlight of his night. Because from there, he saw his ice time drop from 6:32 of the first period to 5:08 in the second. And in the third period, Kuzmenko barely played with his team down by a bunch and needing offence. As the Canucks mounted their furious comeback, Kuzmenko played just three shifts in the final period and only one over the final 10:41 of the hockey game. On the night, he logged 14:14 and of that, only 9:28 was at even strength.
In those 5-on-5 minutes, the Canucks were outshot 14-2.
Tocchet, who has usually gone out of his way to balance criticism of Kuzmenko the player with some sort of mention of how much he likes the person, left absolutely no grey area about where things stand right now with a lost soul who has four goals, 36 shots, two hits and six blocks in the 23 games he’s played this season.
“I’m tired of answering questions about him,” Tocchet bristled in the aftermath of Tuesday’s loss. “Kuzy’s got to forecheck. Let’s start with that.”
On Tocchet’s list of non-negotiables, forechecking is at the top. And if Kuzmenko won’t buy in, he may very well be shipped out. A 39-goal scorer with an electric personality as he took the city and the NHL by storm last season, everything about Kuzmenko has been subdued as a sophomore. A regression was expected. A disappearing act, however, was not.
And so the coach did what most coaches would do last night. He parked a player he didn’t feel was helping his hockey club and gave opportunities to players like Nils Höglander and Sam Lafferty who both scored in the third period to pull well in front of Kuzmenko in the goal-scoring department despite playing far fewer minutes and with almost no power play time.
If Kuzmenko isn’t going to do all the little things Tocchet demands away from the puck and he doesn’t produce with the man-advantage – and for a while over the past few games, he had been removed from the top unit altogether – it’s entirely fair to ask what his primary contributions are for the Canucks.
This situation doesn’t seem tenable for much longer. The Canucks have had a terrific start to the season devoid of the usual off-ice noise that had become part of the soundtrack of too many lost seasons in recent years. It’s not healthy for the coach to have a player he doesn’t trust and won’t play. It doesn’t do Kuzmenko much good to plod along as a bit part with little hope of brighter days here. And it’s far from ideal for the hockey club to carry an underperforming $5.5 million contract this year and next if that money could be better used on a player that suits the system.
Kuzmenko has a 12-team no trade list as part of his deal that has to be considered if the club decides to explore the market.
Benchings and healthy scratches can only work for so long. They’ve been tried with little to no effect. With a general manager that has shown a willingness – and an ability – to make trades to help his hockey club already this season, you have to wonder if the Vancouver Canucks are examining their options with Andrei Kuzmenko.
A year ago at this time, he had a dozen goals on an entry level contract and it felt like the Canucks had stumbled into a piece that could be a big part of what they were trying to put together here.
But coaches and situations change. And sometimes, so does a player’s area code.
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