Is Andrei Kuzmenko one of the Canucks’ most dynamic forwards? 4 takeaways from his NHL debut

Andrei Kuzmenko was one of the Canucks’ biggest jokers this season. The skilled and elusive winger was Russia’s top free agent in the KHL last summer and was sought after by many teams in the league. Vancouver won the contest and signed him to a one-year ELC, the maximum allowed under the CBA given his age, immediately adding a valuable asset to the organization for, essentially, free.

It was a home run for a Canucks team that needed to inject cheap, productive talent into the roster without a high acquisition cost in terms of trade chips.

European free agents, however, are completely unknown until they arrive in the NHL. Sometimes you strike gold with a bona fide star like Artemi Panarin, others like Vadim Shipachyov go out immediately and there are tons of results in between.

We officially hit the 10-game milestone for the Kuzmenko Project in Vancouver, with the 26-year-old scoring three goals and six points. It’s obviously not a large enough sample of games to draw conclusions from, but there’s still a lot we can glean from his NHL streak so far in terms of strengths, weaknesses, and potential impact at the future. Here are four observations/takeaways.

Predatory offensive instincts in a hurry

One of the most underrated skills in hockey is a forward’s natural offensive instinct to constantly open up and find soft ice where he can get shots. This talent flies under the radar because it’s not as flashy as blazing speed, soft shots, or raw strength towards the net. But finding time and space in the premium areas of the ice is practical and necessary. What’s the point of having a player with a sniper, for example, if he never has the intelligence to create the space to actually shoot?

This is where Kuzmenko has done a smart job of carving out a place for himself. He’s playing with top talent all the time, with Elias Pettersson at five-on-five and on the first-unit power play. Kuzmenko isn’t an electric puck-carrier, so he understands his job is to make sure he consistently opens up in dangerous pockets in the offensive zone, while leaving distribution responsibilities to Pettersson. Kuzmenko has pulled it off time and time again, which is why his five-on-five individual shooting rate ranks 51st among all NHL forwards who have played at least 50 minutes this season. He produced 14 high-risk five-on-five chances according to Natural Stat Trick, which leads the Canucks and is tied for 22nd among forwards.

5v5 High Risk Luck Bosses

A lot of Kuzmenko’s damage came from rushing attacks, where he showed predatory instincts with and without the puck. That’s why he and Pettersson clicked so well – Kuzmenko understands optimal spacing and takes smart, deliberate routes to beat defenders and become a passing option. Below is a great example of a power play regroup rush chance where Kuzmenko takes the outside lane to covertly beat the defender rather than trying to win a straight run.

When JT Miller picked up the puck on the regroup, Kuzmenko could have made a straight line and continued to hit to the left side as the arrow indicates.

But for that to work, he would have had to win a run and receive the puck at an awkward angle where it would have been difficult for him to get a good shot, especially with a right fielder on his back. Instead, knowing that Miller had Bo Horvat as a short passing option if needed, he took more of a backdoor route to get behind his control undetected.

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Kuzmenko is able to create dangerous rush chances even when his team has no odd rush. When attacking in a three-on-three or two-on-two setting, the biggest thing you want to avoid is being in a flat position as attackers – it’s too easy to defend. Kuzmenko seems to have an innate understanding of how to effectively stagger players to add layers to a rushing attack. In the footage below, he entered the zone on a non-threatening two-on-two with Curtis Lazar, with both players on the same flat horizontal plane.

Kuzmenko stopped and cut sideways to intersect with Lazar which completely changed the dynamics of the race. Lazar ended up tipping Kuzmenko’s high shot for a goal.

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Here’s an example of Kuzmenko applying the same concept, except without the puck. What starts out as an ordinary three-on-three quickly turns dangerous as Kuzmenko aggressively takes the outside lane to get behind the defence.

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He showed the same understanding on a Garland rush below. Instead of heading to the net, Kuzmenko kept itself as a staggered trailer option, which gave a decent look.

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You also like to see quick one-touch passes like this:

Sneaky, clever ability to open the backdoor, live in the front of the net

Some coaches stereotype Russian players as skilled perimeter players who don’t have a nose for fat spots. As for Kuzmenko, he did all of his actual scoring around the blue paint.

Kuzmenko’s knack for chasing open ice on the backdoor specifically led to two of his three goals and plenty of additional Category A chances. It was the bread and butter of his role in the power play of the first unit since he has not been relied on too often as a playmaker below the goal line.

The objectives themselves are tap-ins, but it takes hard work and smart timing to slip into those positions undetected.

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Kuzmenko’s goal against the Penguins was a reward for the persistence he showed going to the net and trying to screen goalies. He is also unlucky not to have scored more goals at this stage given the volume of chances he has generated. Kuzmenko shot just 4.76% five-for-five, with one goal to score, while Natural Stat Trick’s expected goals model estimates that an average league finisher would have buried three goals with the same quality of occasions.

That means Kuzmenko is likely due for a rebound, which makes sense considering a few backdoor plays he was absolutely robbed on. Either that or he’s a bad finisher.

Kuzmenko’s defensive flaws

Bruce Boudreau didn’t mince words when I asked if Kuzmenko’s defensive game needed improvement. The answer was clear “he knows he has to be a little better”. This definitely follows when watching gameplay footage.

Kuzmenko can be caught staring at the puck and doesn’t check his shoulder often enough to keep an eye on the direction of his control. Below you will see an example. Carolina is very clearly going to win the loose puck and Kuzmenko is the deepest back. Instead of looping and following Jordan Staal, he takes an odd route that leaves Staal wide open to set up the Canes’ critical 3-1 goal.

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He also has a tendency to stop moving his feet, which, coupled with a lack of shoulder control, leaves him vulnerable to a defensive breakdown like the one below.

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Kuzmenko’s wall work on escape attempts has also been inconsistent. There are times when he looks sharp making a quick play under pressure, but there are other times when it has led to problems. Here is an example of turnover.

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Against the Penguins, there was a tough streak where he didn’t come back into the defensive zone at all to help. Jack Rathbone circled the puck around the boards in a position where the winger (Kuzmenko) should have been the first player on the puck. Instead, Kuzmenko fully retreated and Tyler Myers was awarded a penalty.

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What about the Pettersson factor?

Kuzmenko’s assessment is tricky because, for the most part, he’s been stapled to Pettersson’s flank. Pettersson’s ability to make controlled offensive plays in transition is unmatched on this list. Given Kuzmenko’s early success, especially when he finds the ice open and receives passes, it’s fair to wonder if he would be significantly less effective without Pettersson.

The Pettersson/Kuzmenko duo, however, controlled nearly 60% of the five-on-five shots. Pettersson is unquestionably the focal point and main driver of this gaming success, but those kinds of numbers are impossible to achieve without Kuzmenko also adding significant value.

Kuzmenko profiles as an add-on piece for a scoring line rather than the engine. With that in mind, Vancouver needs to be calculated on how they approach Kuzmenko’s future this offseason until they can gather more information on whether he can move up and down in the top nine or if he will. is a one-dimensional fit.

All videos courtesy of Sportsnet

(Photo by Andrei Kuzmenko: Steven Bisig/USA Today)

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