Brayden Fengler / June 27, 2022
The ink is barely dry on Andrei Kuzmenko’s one-year $1.8M contract, but before he even picked up a pen, anticipation was in the air about what this extremely effective young player could do for the Canucks next season. Now that his presence in Vancouver is a sure thing, the anticipation can really begin in earnest.
We’re still a ways out from puck drop on the 2022-23 season, and the entire structure of this team could change over the remaining course of the off-season. However there are still some things that we can safely anticipate, and others that we can simply hope for, in regards to Kuzmenko’s NHL debut.
Who’s on Kuzmenko’s Line
Kuzmenko seems destined for a top-six role this season, if Vasily Podkolzin can earn one then so can Kuzmenko. Two of the three line combinations that I would like to see Kuzmenko tried alongside first, have Podkolzin on them. Which makes sense, not just due to their shared nationality but the fact that the two were linemates back on St. Petersburg SKA.
However, Kuzmenko is a player that should be able to make a difference no matter who he’s placed alongside in the rotation. Yet still, it couldn’t hurt to first test out the NHL chemistry of Kuzmenko and his former linemate.
Hockey has a PK and a PP, but now it can have a PPK. No that doesn’t stand for some freak combination of a penalty kill line that also features on the powerplay, but rather the combination of Podkolzin, Petterson, and Kuzmenko. Podkolzin and Elias Pettersson played over 300 minutes together last year.
In fact aside from the lotto line, Conor Garland and Podkolzin were the wingers that Pettersson was deployed with the most. That line had a Corsi for percentage below 50% at 44.5% but a lot of that can be contributed to the two varying degrees of slumps had by both Pettersson and Garland.
Not to mention the fact that Podkolzin is not a difference-maker on his own. Swap out Garland for Kuzmenko, that has the potential to be a deadly line. If Pettersson can start the year at proper Pettersson performance levels, that line is first-line caliber.
If the Canucks want Kuzmenko and Podkolzin to develop chemistry alongside the best, they should put the pair with either Pettersson or if J.T. Miller still remains a Canuck by puck drop of next season (feelings on this aside). Then Miller would definitely not be a bad centre to Podz and Kuzmenko.
Miller likes to play centre and his performance appeared stronger this year than last year when he was first transitioned to that position on the Canucks. Kuzmenko’s proven abilities along with the likely chemistry between him and Podkolzin would make the two of them respectable line mates for Miller. This line would all depend on if Podkolzin and Kuzmenko’s chemistry clicks like everyone is hoping it will.
But if it does a line combination like this could allow the Canucks to make the most out of Miller at centre, if he still gets slotted in that position next season.
It’s easy to draw up lines for Kuzmenko that feature Podkolzin, and unless this turns out to be a Loui Eriksson-Sedins situation where the chemistry on the Canucks just isn’t the same as elsewhere, I think it’s logical to first keep Kuzmenko and Podkolzin together.
But a Podkolzin-less line that might be a good fit for Kuzmenko could be Nils Höglander and Bo Horvat. Höglander is a different player than Podkolzin. he ranks in a similar category in production, and due to the fact that both Höglander and Podkolzin impressed early while on the Canucks. Like Podkolzin, Höglander is a solid player, that can thrive in a good situation, but he won’t turn the tides on his own.
Kuzmenko could potentially help Höglander expand his production if the two are found to have chemistry on a line like this, and for Kuzmenko what a better way to be welcomed to your new team than to be made linemates with the captain. Kuzmenko may end up doing more heavy lifting on a line like this than on the other two suggested above, but in a situation where the chemistry isn’t quite so immediate with Podkolzin, perhaps a line like this might be a logical choice.
How Much Damage Will He Do?
Kuzmenko is 26, and far from your typical rookie, infact he can’t even qualify as a rookie as he’s 26 before September 15th of this current year, which by NHL standards makes him ineligible for the designation. But just because he’s older that doesn’t mean his transition to the NHL will be smoother than those that have come before him.
It’s never a known factor how Russian or European players will fair in the NHL’s system and style of play. But there’s hope here, due to Kuzmenko’s age, he may not have as hard of a time as others that have made the leap before him.
In Kuzmenkos last year in St. Petersburg SKA he earned 53 points in 45 games. In Podkolzins last year on the same team he earned 11 points in 35 games. Now, this isn’t exactly a fair comparison as it’s been documented that Podkolzin’s ice time was kneecapped by his former team. But never the less for Kuzmenko 53 points in 45 games is an impressive stat that proves his ability as a potential star in the NHL.
In Brock Boeser’s first full year as a Canuck he blessed Vancouver with 55 points, and in Petterson’s first full year he racked up 66. When considering factors like age and past performance, Kuzmenko is likely to place somewhere around Brock Boeser’s total, rather than stretching all the way to what Elias Pettersson was able to do in his first year.
Kuzmenko’s age and proven ability at a high level of hockey makes it hard to project him having a row of stats totaling anything less than 40-50 points.
The biggest potential issue with players like Kuzmenko is not how they will perform on the ice, but rather how well they’ll be able to handle all the external factors involving a transition to North American living and the whole system of North American hockey.
Take Nikita Tryamkin, an anticipated new asset from Russia during the 2015-16 NHL season. He ended up playing a total of 79 games here in Vancouver over the course of two seasons, before leaving back to Russia. Reportedly citing that his ice time was lower than he was content with, in addition to his unwillingness to spend time in Utica at the time, to develop his North American game at the AHL level. He had a hard time mixing with the culture as a whole.
Until a person lives in a new environment, there is no telling how they will adapt. However Kuzmenko could’ve chosen to go to one of the many other teams that were interested in him, but he chose Vancouver, and to some degree, that has to mean something positive. If his former linemate is any indication, there may be no need to worry about a culture fit issue.
Podkolzin moved his wife over last year, he’s made a dedicated attempt to learn English, and he has shown at every turn that he wants to be a Canuck. As the only Russian player on Vancouver, Podkolzin is an example of how future Russian players can succeed in this market, or at the very least, succeed at the transition to it.
Time will tell, but Canucks fans are likely struggling not to feel happy, not just because the Canucks signed Kuzmenko, but because Kuzmenko wanted to sign here, more than anywhere else. That’s a great feeling as a franchise and as a fan base, and it makes it hard not to hold a little extra hope for next season and beyond.