Why Andrei Kuzmenko’s addition is a home run for the Canucks

The Vancouver Canucks have won their prize.

On Monday, Andrei Kuzmenko’s representatives announced that the KHL star intends to sign with the Vancouver Canucks. Exact contract details haven’t been ironed out, but the 26-year-old is limited by the CBA to signing a one-year, entry-level contract due to his age.

Kuzmenko, a right-shot who plays the left wing, has improved his point production in five consecutive KHL seasons, notching 20 goals and 53 points in 45 games last season. One could argue that he’s immediately the top-left winger on the Canucks’ depth chart.

Canucks Left-Wing Depth Chart

With JT Miller shifting to the middle and Nils Höglander falling out of favor under Bruce Boudreau, there’s very little competition for the creative Russian forward to earn top-six minutes. That, in a nutshell, was a big selling point for the Canucks. Because he’s limited to a one-year deal, Kuzmenko wanted to ensure he’s put in a position to succeed and the Canucks could offer ample opportunity. As previously reported, the club also believes he can be a top power-play contributor.

What can Kuzmenko realistically provide the Canucks with?

One way to examine his potential impact is by finding KHL players who’ve graduated to the NHL recently. Specifically, we’ll search for players similar to Kuzmenko in age and KHL production (that’ll weed out stars like Artemi Panarin and Kirill Kaprizov who were elite KHL scorers at much younger ages) and then see how they fared in the NHL. That can give us a rough idea of ​​what the Canucks might be able to expect. Here’s what those comparable look like, sorted in order from highest to lowest points per game in the KHL from their age 24-to-26 campaigns.

Kuzmenko Statistical Comps

Player

Age 24-26 KHL P/GP

NHL first year P/GP

NHL career P/GP

1.39

0.71

0.7

1.24

0.66

0.55

0.83

N / A

N / A

0.73

0.88

0.64

0.73

0.59

0.49

0.65

0.36

0.67

0.81

TBD

TBD

There is a really wide range of outcomes here which is illustrative of how difficult it is to project a KHL player’s impact in North America.

Kuzmenko and Radulov scored at an identical 1.18 points-per-game rate in their respective age-26 KHL seasons. The big difference, however, is that Radulov was an elite producer way before turning 26. Radulov already had 312 points in 258 games overall in the KHL by the age of 26. He also scored 26 goals and 58 points with the Predators at just 21 Kuzmenko, on the other hand, has notched 200 points in 315 career KHL games.

So yes, while Kuzmenko and Radulov look nearly identical at age 26, the two aren’t really comparable players when factoring in the whole body of work. Radulov was on a completely different level, closer to the Panarin/Kaprizov tier in terms of KHL production.

Nikita Gusev’s age 24-26 production was considerably also loftier than Kuzmenko’s. Gusev hit the ground running in the NHL with 44 points in 66 games in his first year with the Devils. He had a disastrous 2020-21 campaign though and was most recently cut by the Maple Leafs on a PTO last fall which forced him to return back to Russia. Gusev’s issue was a matter of earning two-way trust, especially since he’s listed at just 5-foot-10, 176 pounds.

The lesson here is that elite point totals in the KHL don’t always result in sustained NHL success, though the Devils still managed to squeeze one productive season out of him. That takeaway can be reaffirmed by Vadim Shipachyov. Shipachyov was signed at age 30 to center a top-six line for the Vegas Golden Knights in their inaugural 2017-18 campaign. Shipachyov looked lost in training camp, however, and was demoted to Vegas’ AHL affiliate twice in the span of less than a month. Shipachyov didn’t want to toil in the minors so he announced his NHL retirement after appearing in just three big league games and returned to Russia.

Of course, there are examples of KHL signings that worked out very well too.

Evgenii Dadonov emerged as a high-end top-six winger upon arriving in North America for a second time. Dadonov had strong, but not elite numbers in the KHL (he didn’t crest the point-per-game mark until his age 27 campaign) which is similar to Kuzmenko. Dadonov scored 65 points in his first NHL season back with the Florida Panthers and followed it up with 70 points the year after. Kuzmenko also shares a similar physical profile as both players are listed at 5-foot-11.

There will be a much steeper learning curve for Kuzmenko compared to Dadonov though. Dadonov was drafted by the Panthers in 2007 and spent four years split between the AHL and NHL before he went back to Russia. In other words, Dadonov already had tons of experience playing in North America and understood what works and what doesn’t in an NHL environment before rejoining the Panthers for a second spin. It would have been much easier for him to translate his success to the NHL immediately compared to Kuzmenko.

Ilya Mikheyev is another KHL success story. Mikheyev had 23 points in 39 games in his first year with the Leafs, before an injury cut his season short. The speedy winger has been a valuable middle-six piece for the Leafs, scoring at a prorated 20-goal, 40-point pace over the last three seasons. Mikheyev is a much different player than Kuzmenko, however. Kuzmenko has more dynamic high-end skill, but Mikheyev is a lot bigger, faster and sturdier defensively. In other words, Kuzmenko has a higher offensive ceiling but he also has bust potential that Mikheyev didn’t, since the latter’s all-around skill set suits the NHL style and has value outside of just his offense.

Another recent comparable is Alexander Barabanov. Barabonov initially struggled to find his fit on a deep Leafs team in 2020-21 and was eventually dealt to the San Jose Sharks. Since then, he’s found his stride with the Sharks, scoring 39 points in 70 games last season.

Statistical comparables are great, but Kuzmenko’s obviously different and unique from all of the players on that table. What do people who know Kuzmenko’s game best in Russia think of his potential impact with the Canucks?

“I think he’s a 50-to-60-points-per-season player if he’s trusted and played with good linemates,” one high-ranking KHL executive told The Athletic. “He will freak out a lot of NHL defensemen with the crazy number of cutbacks he does every game. He’s very good at controlling the puck along the boards. He’s good on the rush, good at controlled entries and strong on his skates. He has good vision, deception moves is his strong ability, shot is above average.”

Fifty to 60 points would be a smashing success and is probably close to a best-case scenario for Kuzmenko and the Canucks. But it isn’t a surprising outlook for his ceiling because he unequivocally has the dynamic talent to be a legitimate top-six piece. It’s also fascinating to note the executive’s comments about Kuzmenko’s strength on his skates. Kuzmenko’s listed at 5-foot-11, 194 pounds so he isn’t the biggest, but if he can battle and translate his work in the corners, it’ll help him push through the physical rigors of the NHL.

The biggest question, of course, will be how quickly he can adjust to the NHL style. He’s going to have to fit in a new country, with new coaches and new teammates in a league that’s faster, more skilled and more physical than anything he’s ever seen in his life. Overcoming that challenge can make or break a player’s NHL transition. Is Kuzmenko up for it? It may not be a totally smooth process according to the KHL executive and the Canucks might need to be patient, but the club can take confidence in Kuzmenko’s work rate.

“There are some questions about his mentality, he definitely needs time to adjust in new circumstances and conditions,” said the KHL executive. “But there’s a strong will to progress constantly and his work ethic is quite high.”

There are no guarantees when it comes to Russian free agents, but Kuzmenko is a strong bet to succeed. This is a home run swing for the Canucks to land a potential top-six piece for a fraction of the cost against the cap. That frees them up to use their remaining cap space to add a top-four defenseman this offseason. It also gives them the flexibility to trade someone like JT Miller, Brock Boeser or Conor Garland with more confidence.

Jim Rutherford and Patrik Allvin are in a tough spot where they have to mine future assets without completely decimating the roster — they’re trying to build for the medium and long term. Trading a player like Miller, Boeser or Garland would bring in valuable assets and cap flexibility but it’d obviously harm the roster itself. Kuzmenko’s addition gives the Canucks another internal middle-six option to help mitigate the loss of moving one of those players.

Whether it ultimately pans out or not, Kuzmenko’s addition is a huge win, an extremely valuable roll of the dice for the Canucks.

(Photo: Maksim Konstantinov/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

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