Amidst his offensive success, Canucks’ Kuzmenko learning to adjust defensive play

Vancouver Canucks' Andrei Kuzmenko, of Russia, celebraters his goal against the Vegas Golden Knights during second period NHL hockey action in Vancouver, B.C., Monday, Nov. 21, 2022. (Darryl Dyck/CP)

LAS VEGAS — As if trying to learn about defending in the National Hockey League hasn’t been challenging enough for Andrei Kuzmenko, the first-year winger from Russia was introduced Thursday by Vancouver Canuck teammates to the incomprehensibleness of golf.

The way Kuzmenko described the experience in his rapidly-improving English, spending six hours at Shadow Creek Golf Club in North Las Vegas was far more painful than the expensive rookie dinner that followed.

“I don’t like,” Kuzmenko said of golf, famously described by Winston Churchill as a game where a small ball is played to an even smaller hole with “weapons singularly ill-designed for the purpose.” “I don’t like, yes. It’s very difficult, golf in Russia. It’s very cold… is maybe two-month season, three months.”

Kuzmenko, whose participation was mandatory at the exclusive and pricey course that is considered one of the best in the United States, pantomimed trying to hit a golf ball and whiffing twice to the delight of teammates.

“Oh, it’s very terrible,” he said. “I don’t understand guys to play six hours, seven hours. For me, oh, two hours, thank you, finish, ‘guys, let’s go.’ For me, it’s very boring game.”

As talented as he is engaging, the 26-year-old Kuzmenko is never boring — especially on an NHL ice sheet.

The first quarter of his season has been far better than the team’s, even if learning to play without the puck has been challenging enough that coach Bruce Boudreau healthy-scratched Kuzmenko for a game in Boston two weeks ago. It followed a loss in Toronto in which Kuzmenko made several careless mistakes.

Kuzmenko’s possession numbers are actually excellent. He leads the team in five-on-five shot share (53.4 per cent) and expected goals (55.8) and the Canucks have outscored opponents 17-11 with the rookie on the ice. With eight goals and 16 points in 19 games, Kuzmenko would be an early favourite for the Calder Trophy were he not ineligible for the award due to his age after spending the last eight seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League.

But it’s the risky decisions Kuzmenko makes with the puck at times, his failure to recognize danger and backcheck quickly enough, that has frustrated Boudreau.

“There’s times when you can make a play, try to deke a guy,” Elias Pettersson, Kuzmenko’s linemate, explained after Friday’s practice. “But there are times when at the end of a shift, maybe just get the puck deep. It’s a learning process. I went through it, too, my first season, learning to play NHL hockey and just be happy with a simple play. He’s been doing a good job so far.”

“For me, it’s a big challenge, yes,” Kuzmenko said. “Every day now, I learn. It’s very difficult in the defence zone; Bruce and other coaches are helping me. 

“In KHL, I can have a little relax. In defence zone. . .  it’s OK, it’s no problem. But in NHL, one second relax is not good for me. It’s a big responsibility. Every day, I work. Now I understand the defence zone. . . is very important for NHL.”

This understanding by Kuzmenko is vitally important for the Canucks.

In Wednesday’s impressive 4-3 road win against the Colorado Avalanche, Boudreau successfully used the trio of Pettersson, Kuzmenko and Ilya Mikheyev in a matchup role against Nathan MacKinnon’s line.

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Pettersson has evolved this season into the Canucks’ best two-way centre, and Mikheyev was signed in July as a free agent from the Toronto Maple Leafs largely for his speed and elite defensive profile. But how much Boudreau uses the line in defensive situations hinges largely on how dependable Kuzmenko becomes without the puck.

“You hope it happens and you hope he takes it to heart,” Boudreau said. “Like last game, we had Petey’s line playing against MacKinnon’s line and if they can do that, that’s great. In the last couple of minutes. . . we put Curtis Lazar on (that line instead of Kuzmenko), but hopefully he gets there soon. You’d love it to be able to happen.

“He still has hiccups every now and again, but ever since we sat him out, he’s been a lot more cognizant of the 200-foot game than he was earlier in the year.”

Asked about sitting out in Boston despite being one of the team’s leading scorers, Kuzmenko said it was an “important moment” for him because he realized how hard he must work during games, and even between games, to make himself a more complete player for the NHL.

In the KHL, he said, the hardest work is in the summer and the actual season, with a routine of games and practices, is easier physically.

“NHL is different,” he said. “I understand now, yes, I need to play good. But I need to go to gym, go to cycle. In NHL, I understand I have good play after good work. I need to work now every day. It doesn’t matter after game, win or lose, go to cycle. Every day, I’m better.”

After Friday’s practice at the Vegas Golden Knights’ training facility in Summerlin, Kuzmenko was one of the last players on the team bus because he had a mandatory post-practice workout. As the organization did with Daniel and Henrik Sedin a generation ago, the Canucks have a workout schedule for Kuzmenko to help improve his NHL conditioning.

The Canucks play the Golden Knights Saturday night.

“Kuz, it’s new to him,” Pettersson said. “For him, it’s just building habits. He wants it, he wants to play hard. We talked yesterday and he said he loved playing against MacKinnon, which makes me happy to hear. But he wants to learn. It’s easier to learn defence than offence.”

“I like, of course,” Kuzmenko said when asked about playing against offensive stars like Colorado’s MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Cale Makar. “I think is one of top three lines in NHL. I like to play against top lines. For me, is a new high level, like: ‘OK, let’s go. Let’s go, why not?’

• The Canucks practised with the same forward lines and defence pairings that rallied for the win in Denver. . . Defenceman Travis Dermott (concussion) practised in a non-contact jersey, and winger Tanner Pearson (hand) skated after practice. Injured defenceman Tucker Poolman (migraine complications) and forward Jack Studnicka (undisclosed) also came on the trip for Thursday’s golf outing and rookie dinner on the team’s day off. . . Studnicka, Jack Rathbone, Nils Aman, Spencer Martin and Dakota Joshua helped Kuzmenko pay the restaurant tab.

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