The history of Vancouver Canucks Russians is hardly exemplary. A couple of years ago, we looked at the best ever to play in the West Coast city. After the top three, the pickings were decidedly slim. This season, things have changed.
The Brigade of Vancouver Canucks Russians
The Canucks have had three Russian players on the team at the same time before. Briefly, the team was playing Pavel Bure, Alexander Mogilny, and, uh, Roman Oksiuta? He had one pretty good season in the NHL, and that’s one more than we’ve ever managed. Lightning flashes do emphasize the darkness in Vancouver’s track record with Russians, in any case. There was even talk of Bure’s acrimonious departure putting the team off Russians, and the Canucks rarely drafted them. Undoubtedly, Mogilny’s declining interest in being on a losing team and the complicated reasons for waiving Igor Larionov also left a bad taste.
But that’s more reputation than fact, though. The Canucks drafted two Russians in the second round of 2002’s entry draft and one more in the seventh. After that, however, they picked six prospects out of Russia over the next 15 years. So there may be a bit of shyness involved despite protests to the contrary.
Eternally bless Stan Smyl for his courage in announcing Vasili Podkolzin‘s selection to the home draft crowd. And somewhat to the team for starting to fortify the Vancouver Canucks Russians. Using a tenth-overall pick on a player who wouldn’t be coming to North America for two more years was bold. The team that spends its time thinking about “this afternoon” – never mind “tomorrow” – passed the marshmallow test.
The patience paid off, getting a talent who was often mentioned as a top-five pick leading up to the draft. Fears of Podkolzin only getting a few minutes per game in the KHL were overblown. That happened for the same reason teams were weary of drafting him in 2019 – politics. He told his KHL team that he was going to leave for the NHL when his contract expired and stuck to it. The team responded by offering bigger deals, then dropping his minutes to low single-digits.
Funny story: those minutes went right back up again every time the playoffs roll around and wins become more important. He stuck to his guns and this small wave of Canucks Russians started. And unlike the previous Russian regular – Nikolai Goldobin – this one can play defence. Possibly because of the tight rein on him in the KHL, Podkolzin is wired to limit his mistakes. But more than that, he takes opponents having the puck as a personal affront and moves to correct it.
He’s having a harder time scoring this season, but last year was solid for a rookie. His best month was the last one, scoring four goals and nine points in 13 April games. He’ll find his place on the team again, even if he suffers the embarrassment of an occasional healthy scratch.
Not to play up Canucks fan reactions, but the signing of free agent Ilya Mikheyev was a warning flare to the rebuild crowd. A four-year, $19 million deal for a 28-year-old winger with less than 150 NHL games experience is a choice. Not a choice made by a team preparing to send out veterans in exchange for draft picks, but a choice.
Mikheyev came to North America as an undrafted free agent, signed by the Toronto Maple Leafs. There was plenty of optimism accompanying him, and for good reason. He was productive in that KHL way, leading Avangard Omsk in scoring the year before his NHL debut. Unfortunately, he missed months of play to injury in his rookie season, and injuries have been a part of his career. But even in the brief time Leafs fans saw him, they could recognize his speed. His breakaway ability gave him plenty of opportunities on goal – which is where he built a reputation of having hands of stone.
Still, speed is speed, and speed is good! He signed on for another two seasons in Toronto, and his scoring plummeted. He averaged just two shots a game and scored seven goals in 54 games. Mikheyev got plenty of shorthanded ice time, so it’s not like he was useless out there. Year three went a lot better with Mikheyev scoring 21 times in 53 games. There’s only so often you want to hear groans from fans when they realize it’s you on the breakaway, though.
Finding a team that’s desperate for exactly what you provide – speed and penalty-killing acumen – is never a bad move. Patrik Allvin offered Mikheyev a four-year, $19 million contract and the second of the Canucks Russians was in place.
Not a lot of casual hockey fans in North America knew who Andrei Kuzmenko was prior to the 2022 off-season. In fact, it’s reasonable to assume that not many fans of the KHL paid him much attention until last season. A scoring winger who was… good? He was decent enough in his time with CSKA Moscow and then SKA Saint Petersburg. Fans of the team knew him, of course, but as a decent winger with good puck control and creativity, not as a star.
Then, suddenly, 2021-22 happened and he became the second-highest scorer in the KHL. His 20 goals and 53 points in 45 games was a career-high in any league – MHL, VHL, or KHL. That got him plenty of attention from NHL teams. And signing a player from other leagues comes with the bonus – for teams – of being a one-year, entry-level deal. Guaranteed maximum payout and low-risk signing for someone who has played professional hockey? LOTS of attention from NHL teams, indeed.
Signing such a player isn’t entirely without risk, of course. He was second in KHL scoring behind Living Warning Light Vadim Shipachyov. Come playoffs, Kuzmenko finished second on his team scoring behind Nikita Gusev – another red flag for KHL signings. So while there is a guaranteed maximum cap on the contract, there’s none on minimum performance. Allvin got the deal done, maybe with an inside route, and the Canucks Russians added their third member.
Sum Equal to Parts
Fortunately for Vancouver, Kuzmenko has come as advertised on the ice – once they started advertising him. Veteran goal-scorers tend to get a lot of leeway from their coaches, so they can arrive with questionable defence. NHL reporters may have been unprepared for just how much of an amiable goofball Kuzmenko is. From just flattening kids on the ice to finally bringing a celly to his scoring on goal three, his personality is growing.
It’s not a bad thing for Podkolzin to have a couple more native Russian speakers around. It’s not often a 21-year-old can play mentor, even if it’s just to show a new arrival around town. If his diminished play continues for a while, having teammates to confide in will help.
And as for Mikheyev, he is just what the Canucks needed – if they weren’t getting a defenceman, that is. Injuries have played their part – because this year, why not – but he’s also putting his speed to good use. And anything at all that can help Vancouver’s penalty kill has got to be worth it.