Andrei Kuzmenko isn’t officially signed just yet, but it’s coming. When July 13th arrives, the Vancouver Canucks will have one extra forward that they won’t consider a prospect.
How the Canucks Won Andrei Kuzmenko
Kuzmenko has never played in North America. Not only was he undrafted, but he also has never played with any team outside Russia. His sudden scoring surge at 26 years old brought him to the attention of plenty of NHL teams.
The joy of picking up a Russian free agent in his mid-20s is that the contract is already – mostly – dictated. It can only be a one-year, entry-level deal. What it comes down to is whichever team leaves him with the best impression wins. Since any of these agents will be playing just one season, that’s going to weight opportunity as heavily as any other consideration. There are bonuses that can be offered – Kuzmenko’s almost certainly been offered some Schedule A ones – but the base salary remains the same. No team can offer more time, either.
— TSN Hockey (@TSNHockey) June 20, 2022
You would think that for a player relying on one year to set up the rest of his NHL career, they would want the chance to start beside two of the best in the world. The Edmonton Oilers were Kuzmenko’s last stop on his free-agent tour and the obvious linemates seemed, well, obvious. It’s very difficult to promise centres more productive than Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl. And as it happens, Vancouver promised him… nothing.
Patrik Allvin’s method in talking to potential free agents has reportedly been one of absolute honesty. That means telling coveted players that they’ll need to earn their ice time just like everyone else on the team. It’s a style that can earn respect but may lose players. Still, honesty and policies, right?
No Promises, No Problems
Allvin does have a relatively long history with Kuzmenko. He apparently came to Allvin’s attention when the Canucks general manager was focussing on Europe for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Allvin clearly believes in Kuzmenko’s talent, enough to drive four hours to meet him in Ann Arbor. Canucks coach Bruce Boudreau attended the same meeting, driving nine hours to attend. The end result clearly impressed, as a decision that was supposed to be a few days away was announced almost immediately after Kuzmenko visited his last city.
Without a guaranteed spot in the Canucks lineup, what was he offered? Why sign with a team that certainly isn’t offering a 100-point+ centre?
One answer is that the team sold him on not just being here for a single season. The Canucks clearly need improved depth among their forwards, and Kuzmenko does that. It’s unlikely he’ll be on the top line right away, but we’re going to need to see what other changes happen. There is certainly a spot in the middle six, and if he starts on a revamped third line nothing stops him from moving up.
If – and this sounds very unlikely, but bear with us – if nothing else changes among the forward group then he’ll have a fight on his hands. Tanner Pearson, Nils Höglander, and Conor Garland are all in the fight for a second-line spot. While neither Höglander nor Garland produced the number they wanted, both drove play really well. And we’ve talked about how much Pearson improved whatever line he was on.
What Kuzmenko Brings
It’s not like he’s going into battle unarmed, though. Andrei Kuzmenko was the KHL’s second-highest scorer last season with 20 goals and 53 points in 45 games. Those totals were well back of a player who serves as a warning to those who would overvalue a KHL scorer: Vadim Shipachyov. If you don’t know who that is, we’re not surprised. For the playoffs, Kuzmenko added seven goals and 14 points in 16 games. That was second on his team behind Nikita Gusev.
Now, Vancouver’s history with Russian players hasn’t been great, either. A total of 19 Russians have played for Vancouver in their entire history, and occasionally the breakups have been, er, awkward. If you just look at the cream of the crop, though, there have been some great ones! Just not for several years. But there is a familiarity between Kuzmenko and Vasily Podkolzin, which is a bit of a shot in the dark. Given how little Podkolzin was played, his time with SKA St. Petersburg could easily have left Kuzmenko with no impression of him at all.
Now, they could be linemates. While there are some similarities in playing style, they would be more complementary than competitive. Kuzmenko is a good passer, and while he’s not particularly fast he is very quick. He likes carrying the puck in and embarrassing a defender rather than bulling his way through. Where Podkolzin will hold the puck and dare opponents to come take it, Kuzmenko is more likely to keep it just out of reach waiting for a play he likes to develop.
What’s Best for Everyone
Again, we don’t know what other changes are coming before the season starts. But if Bo Horvat is still here in October, his abilities as a shooting centre should mesh well between those two. Podkolzin did his best work with either Elias Pettersson or J.T. Miller last season rather than Horvat at centre, though. So maybe that theory doesn’t work, but it seems the most obvious starting point for all three of them.
Is it lazy putting the two Russian players on the same line? Yeah, it could be. But the two should work well together stylistically. And if Andrei Kuzmenko is going to succeed, it’s going to be as a scorer. His defence isn’t particularly good, so help from two more reliable Canucks players isn’t a bad idea.
In the best of all possible worlds, Kuzmenko is a free player that cost Vancouver nothing to find. If the team finds a combination that works, his second contract will be in the same city. He can free up the team to move more expensive deals, giving them some financial versatility. He doesn’t help find them a right-side defenceman, but one step at a time.
In a season full of questions, not only is Andrei Kuzmenko not a conundrum – he’s the easy answer at the beginning to get you warmed up.