The Vancouver Canucks’ tidiest piece of work this off-season was the acquisition of Andrey Kuzmenko.
The top European free agent chose to sign with the Canucks over any other team across the NHL. Best of all for the Canucks, Kuzmenko was forced to sign an ELC, meaning his cap hit starts at $850k before bonuses.
Kuzmenko finished second in the KHL in scoring last season with 20 goals, 33 assists, and 53 points in just 45 games. The KHL is a notoriously hard league to score in which makes those numbers even more impressive.
The 26-year-old winger is a sneaky skater who uses his elusiveness to find open space in the offensive zone.
Russian free agents who have come to the NHL from the KHL in recent years have experienced varying degrees of success. Some of the best players in the NHL (including Artemi Panarin) took that path, but there are also many who failed to make a successful transition, such as former Vegas Golden Knights forward Vadim Shipachyov — who outscored Kuzmenko last season in the KHL.
Kuzmenko has the potential to be a legitimate top-six forward from the moment he takes the ice for Vancouver. However, to unlock that potential the Canucks will need to make sure that they do everything to make his transition as smooth as possible — both on and off the ice.
A big part of that transition, in terms of the hockey part, will be the linemates that Kuzmenko gets regular minutes with. Because he’s so talented offensively, the Canucks will want to give him great opportunities with skilled players. Here are a few combinations Bruce Boudreau could try with Kuzmenko to see what sticks.
Andrey Kuzmenko / Elias Pettersson / Vasily Podkolzin
It makes sense to put Kuzmenko with another one of the Russian forwards to begin his time with the Canucks. Vasily Podkolzin played three seasons with Kuzmenko in the KHL and would be able to help ease his transition, a journey that Podkolzin underwent himself last season.
This line would be one of the most dangerous offensively for the Canucks. Podkolzin and Pettersson showed some chemistry together near the end of last season and adding Kuzmenko to the mix could make a dangerous trio. Podkolzin’s big body and forechecking skills means he could retrieve pucks and clear space for the other two to go to work.
Andrey Kuzmenko / Bo Horvat / Ilya Mikheyev
If the Canucks wanted to go a different route, they could try this combination with Bo Horvat and Ilya Mikheyev. Mikheyev and Kuzmenko are friends and it was revealed this offseason that the former Toronto Maple Leaf helped recommend Vancouver to Kuzmenko.
The concern with this line would be Kuzmenko’s defensive acumen and the fact that Horvat and Mikheyev make up two-thirds of an excellent checking line. Kuzmenko is not known for his defensive play and playing against the top competition the NHL has to offer would make for a rough introduction to the league. Ideally, Kuzmenko would get more sheltered minutes than this.
Andrey Kuzmenko / Elias Pettersson / Brock Boeser
Last but not least, the Canucks could opt to play Kuzmenko with two of the more dangerous offensive forwards on the roster. While this lineup would be very one dimensional and struggle to play much defence, the hope would be that they wouldn’t have to as they would always have the puck.
Kuzmenko getting legitimate top-six minutes with high end linemates could put him in the best chance to rack up individual stats, something that could help the Canucks flip him at the deadline if it’s clear he won’t re-sign in the offseason. However, there would be no other Russian player on this line to help with the finer parts of on-ice communication.