From Pettersson’s wing to the low minute man: How should the Canucks utilize Andrei Kuzmenko moving forward?

Photo credit:© Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports
Bill Huan
1 year ago
A few months ago, we discussed why Andrei Kuzmenko’s progression should be heavily monitored for the rest of this season.
The premise behind that was to see if Kuzmenko could sign a contract that might become a future bargain given his lack of NHL experience and potential to continue developing.
Since then, the Russian winger was rewarded with a two-year deal with a $5.5 million AAV, but has also seen his deployment decrease under new head coach Rick Tocchet.
The Canucks have already signed the extension, and Kuzmenko isn’t going anywhere. So how should the team deploy Kuzmenko moving forward?
Let’s find out.

Kuzmenko’s offensive game

After re-watching all 22 of Kuzmenko’s goals, his ability to find open ice is by far his biggest strength. Just take a look at the way in which he’s scored: almost half of his goals are from tap-ins.
Wrist shots1
Off rebound1
At a glance, it might seem concerning that so many of his goals are tap-ins, but eluding defenders and putting yourself in positions to score is a valuable skill. Specifically, Kuzmenko has a tendency of sneaking to the open side of the net instead of screening opposing goalies, the latter of which is likely what defenders expect him to do.
The ease of Kuzmenko’s finishes raises the question as to why other players don’t do the same, but that’s the brilliance of his game: Kuzmenko has an innate sense of where the best scoring opportunities will be, which is why his goals almost seem a bit too simple.
This is best shown in the following clip. Kuzmenko could have continued skating behind the net, but since Elias Pettersson did the same, the Russian instead abruptly circled to the post and finished a gorgeous feed from his centre.
Miller’s presence could have stopped Kuzmenko from skating into the same vicinity, but he never allows other factors to influence him from finding the most dangerous scoring chances available.
Meanwhile, Kuzmenko’s tips are similar to his tap-ins. He seems to materialize out of nowhere to deflect shots, which is what makes these plays so hard to defend. In the first clip below, it might seem like the deflection was inadvertent. However, replays show that Kuzmenko purposefully put himself in a position to redirect the shot, and his elusiveness is what makes him so difficult to defend.
The second clip is another example of him taking advantage of a brief breakdown of Tampa’s penalty kill. Kuzmenko is a master at exploiting lapses in opposing defences, and he put himself in the perfect position to deflect Hughes’ slapper.
On the other hand, Kuzmenko’s playmaking isn’t as polished. 14 of his 23 assists are secondary, and most of those are a result of Pettersson doing the heavy lifting. With that said, Kuzmenko still possesses decent vision, and there’s been a few times when he’s threaded the needle and set up teammates for great scoring opportunities.
The first clip is perhaps Kuzmenko’s best pass this season, as he knew exactly where Conor Garland was and delivered it right onto the latter’s tape. However, those types of plays are few and far between, and it’s much more common to find him making cross-seam passes like the one in the second clip. Those still create very good looks, but it shows that Kuzmenko generally isn’t able to manifest scoring chances out of thin air.
Of course, very few players are capable of that, but it’s evident that Kuzmenko doesn’t have the ceiling of becoming the driving force of a line. He’s much more comfortable being a play finisher and secondary creator, and that doesn’t even account for the “Petey factor.”

The Petey factor 

Like every Canuck, Kuzmenko’s underlying numbers dip when he plays without Pettersson, but his metrics might actually be better than you’d expect.
Kuzmenko without Pettersson (five on five)
Total minutesCorsiGoals For/60Goals Against/60Goals percentageExpected Goals For/60Expected Goals Against/60Expected Goals Percentage
Encouragingly, Kuzmenko’s stats have steadily improved — just take a look at his splits from October to November and December until today.
Kuzmenko without Pettersson in October and November (five on five)
Total minutesCorsiGoals For/60Goals Against/60Goals percentageExpected Goals For/60Expected Goals Against/60Expected Goals Percentage
Kuzmenko without Pettersson from December to February 14th (five on five)
Total minutesCorsiGoals For/60Goals Against/60Goals percentageExpected Goals For/60Expected Goals Against/60Expected Goals Percentage
Unfortunately, Kuzmenko’s decent numbers haven’t translated on an individual level. The Russian has a single goal along with five assists at five-on-five this season when he’s played without Pettersson. Kuzmenko hasn’t been tied to bottom-six players during those minutes, either — his most common linemates outside of Pettersson and Ilya Mikheyev have been the Canucks’ second and third-best forwards this season, former captain Bo Horvat and J.T. Miller.
Considering his meager production, it’s possible that Kuzmenko’s surprisingly competent metrics are more a product of his good linemates rather than his own contributions, especially considering the soft competition he faces whenever he’s not riding shotgun alongside Petey.
Moreover, Kuzmenko has scored eight more goals than expected. As we previously outlined, most of his goals have been a result of his elusiveness, so it’s reasonable to expect the Russian to continue outperforming his expected numbers moving forward. Even so, his 23.66% shooting percentage is unsustainably high — it ranks third among all players who’ve appeared in more than half of their team’s games — and much of his early-season success was due to opposing teams being unfamiliar with his game.
Now that Kuzmenko’s a known threat, his production has unsurprisingly taken a hit, which has been exacerbated by his recent lack of ice time.

How should the Canucks deploy Kuzmenko moving forward? 

Kuzmenko’s biggest strength is undoubtedly his ability to put himself in the best scoring spots possible, and this is maximized whenever he plays with Petey or on the power play. Without occupying those roles, Kuzmenko isn’t enough of a play driver to generate offence on his own, and his inconsistent defence makes it hard to deploy him in a matchup role as well (unless it’s alongside Petey).
With that in mind, the Canucks should’ve traded Kuzmenko before the deadline since his value won’t ever be higher. His $5.5 million AAV is fair value only if he’s deployed as Pettersson’s winger. Otherwise, Kuzmenko doesn’t move the needle enough to justify his contract.
The recent dip in Kuzmenko’s ice time has raised eyebrows, but fans shouldn’t be worried yet given how well Brock Boeser’s played since Tocchet took over. It is a storyline worth monitoring, though, and concerns should be raised if a winger was moved at the deadline and Kuzmenko was still buried down the depth chart.
Moving forward, the Canucks need to staple Kuzmenko to Pettersson’s wing so that the Russian continues producing, then look to either trade or extend him before his contract is up. Even with opposing teams scheming more against him, Kuzmenko still has the talent to be a consistent 25-goal, 60-point player, especially since he’s still adapting to the NHL.
In the end, the Canucks must put Kuzmenko in the best position to succeed, for the good of both the player and the team as a whole.
Otherwise, why did management re-sign him?
All stats courtesy of Natural Stat Trick and Evolving-Hockey.

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