The Vancouver Canucks' off-season is underway and while there is plenty of speculation over what the front office might do to upgrade its blue line, or which of Brock Boeser, J.T. Miller or Conor Garland they may trade, the first move of note was an FA signing.
Though not official yet, Russian winger Andrey Kuzmenko and his agent Dan Milstein committed to the Canucks on Monday, with the team confirming shortly after.
The addition of Kuzmenko is a welcome and certainly interesting development for the Canucks. Signing rules cap Kuzmenko's deal at an entry-level one-year, $950,000 cap hit, but allow for Performance A and B signing bonuses that could lead to a carry-over cap hit into the millions.
Those terms are still being worked out, though, and the contract can't be made official until July 13, the day free agency opens.
This is a player Canucks GM Patrik Allvin is intensely aware of and has been tracking for some time.
"I have been watching Andrey since his 2014-15 season and have been impressed with his development and improvement," Allvin said in a team press release. "Once the contract details are finalized, we look forward to helping him continue to grow as a hockey player."
So who is Kuzmenko? What type of player is he? Where could he fit into Vancouver's lineup, and what could it mean to other potential moves this summer? Here's a quick overview:
WHAT TYPE OF PLAYER IS KUZMENKO?
He was never drafted into the NHL and didn't completely graduate out of Russia's junior MHL for two years after he was first eligible for the draft. He's a late bloomer who wasn't even close to being a point per game player in the KHL until just this past season, when he finished second in league scoring with 53 points in 45 games, and the fourth-best points per game rate by a 25-year-old player in league history.
"Going back three years he was a good player, not an elite player and then two years ago he took another step forward...and then this year he really popped," Cam Robinson, Director of Film Scouting for Elite Prospects, told the FAN 650. "He was afforded every opportunity you can imagine. Whether he's going to get that in Vancouver is another thing, but it's going to be about putting him in position to succeed, understanding what he can do, and forgiving some of those miscues and still rolling him out there for whatever he's going to get, 15-17 minutes a night with the power play."
Any team that acquired Kuzmenko was doing so for the offence he can bring, along with the relatively cheap and low-risk cap hit he'd come with. The Canucks, with about $9.6 million in projected cap space, have options for how to use Kuzmenko and though the idea is that he'll become a top-six forward and get some power play usage, reports indicate that the team didn't promise him those roles out of the gate, and that he'll need to earn it.
If he's given the opportunity to succeed and fail and afforded the room and time to adapt to the NHL game, all indications are that this is a player who should give the Canucks a boost on offence, and flexibility around the lineup, as currently constructed.
"He's an elusive skater. He's got good speed, can change gears effectively. He controls the pace and has some good fakes," Robinson said. "In zone in the offensive end he can embarrass people with some quick moves.
"While transporting the puck through the neutral zone he plays a little more NHL style where he doesn't look for the deke right away. He'll look for the entry first, curl around and then look to maybe embarrass somebody.
"I'd call him a playmaker first and foremost off the wing. He has a decent shot. They utilized him in a bunch of different ways on the power play. He was on the right circle, left circle, net front guy, he was that down low player who looks to distribute. His ability to see the ice, patience, to draw coverage and then move it is probably the most translatable part of his game."
WHO DOES HE BEST FIT WITH?
Here's the million dollar question, and how Canucks management projects this will inform some of the other choices they have to make this summer (more on that shortly).
If the Canucks return J.T. Miller and run him back as a centre instead of on the wing, then there would be three pivots Kuzmenko could line up beside, between Miller, Elias Pettersson and Bo Horvat. By the time next season ends, Kuzmenko will probably have gotten a look with a variety of combinations.
If the Canucks have that three-headed monster down the middle, perhaps Kuzmenko could first be eased into a third line role beside someone who may complement his game the best.
"Bo Horvat is kind of a shooting centre so he could be a nice playmaking winger for him," Robinson said. "Horvat is also more of that heavy puck pursuit style. Kuzmenko also is pretty tenacious to go get loose pucks, especially in the offensive end. I wouldn't call him a heavy player by any means, but he does have a bit of that grit to his game too.
"I'm sure Pettersson and him would do well as well. It depends on where you want to slot him in. He's a right shot guy who traditionally plays the left wing, he can play the right side as well so maybe if they end up moving J.T. Miller he's a nice guy to slide into Petey's left wing there."
WHAT'S THE DOWNSIDE?
With such little investment in either term or cap hit, there is virtually no risk in putting Kuzmenko into the lineup and seeing what he can do. The only downside might be if Kuzmenko isn't put in a lineup position where he can succeed, or if the coaching staff shies away from using him early if Kuzmenko has a few defensive breakdowns that he may be prone to.
"Defensively he doesn't really do all that much," Robinson said. "He'll stick with his man on the back check and that's about it. He's going to have to pop in an offensive role in order to be effective and be a contributing factor. I have a feeling the organization has pretty much chiseled his name into an offensive role."
Not every Russian offensive whiz who comes over to the NHL later in their careers carries over that production. Vadim Shipachyov and Nikita Gusev are a couple of recent examples of Russian players who arrived in the NHL with great fanfare and perceived upside, and then returned to the KHL after a short and unsuccessful North American stint.
If that happens with Kuzmenko too, the Canucks will hardly be burned by it, unless they make another roster move or trade that banks on Kuzmenko being a breakout, top-six star.
The key for Vancouver and its coaching staff, then, is to put Kuzmenko in good spots, don't shy away from his early gaffes, and let him breath in a role that best suits his game.
"Understanding and identifying a player's skill and what they can bring to the table to benefit them and to benefit the team, thats the No. 1 priority. I'm assuming they've watched a ton of tape and know the player well," Robinson said.
"If he gets the confidence from the coach and the trust from the coaches that there will be mistakes, there will be missed assignments on the back check, that you keep rolling him out there, keep giving him confidence boosters."
SCOUT'S ANALYSIS FROM JASON BUKALA:
"Kuzmenko brings an upper tier (top six) skill set to the Vancouver Canucks. He has the ability to make plays in small areas and spin off checks. Although he picks his spots at times he has an extra gear in transition and can be fast to find open ice in the offensive zone and off the rush. He's not tall (5-foot-11) but he's very sturdy/strong (194 pounds). When he shields pucks he is difficult to push off the play. He will need to adjust and provide more detail on the defensive side of the game, but his skill set wins out. Expect him to contribute on the power play."
WHAT OTHER CHANGES COULD THIS SIGNING LEAD TO?
If Kuzmenko is going to hit as a top-six scorer and power play contributor, he gives Vancouver a lot of cap benefits with only a $950,000 charge for just this season. Of course, if he does end up hitting, that rate will only jump next off-season, when he'd become UFA eligible.
That's a discussion for another day.
In the meantime, having someone who projects as a top-six winger and who could perhaps even start there leaves the Canucks in a better place to move out another forward, if they so choose.
"It definitely frees them up now to move a core piece to help another area of the team or to clear out cap space," Robinson said.
If we view Kuzmenko as a left winger who will get power play minutes, that would appear to leave Tanner Pearson and his $3.25 million cap hit as no longer being required. Perhaps his name could be added to the list of trade candidates in Vancouver this summer.
But it could also leave Boeser in the trade crosshairs. The pending RFA could go to arbitration this summer, or accept a one-year qualifying offer from the Canucks at $7.5 million. If there isn't a cheaper, long-term deal to get done here, Boeser may be the player who makes more sense to move on from in light of the Kuzmenko pick up.
"There's a lot of money committed on the wing. You've got Tanner Pearson, Brock Boeser and Conor Garland, and if you want to include J.T. Miller as a winger, which I still view him as primarily...that's a lot of money," The Athletic's Thomas Drance told Halford and Brough. "That's a lot of cap dollars committed on the wing. If Boeser were to accept his qualifying offer that's $20 million worth of top six wingers. If you throw Kuzmenko into the mix, but Podkolzin and Hoglander too, one way to shed cap space -- something this club's been focused on since new management came in -- it would feel like an obvious area with four players that should have some value around the league.
"It's hard not to think that perhaps in some ways this is a move that gives them some options in terms of managing a departure in an area where they have a surplus of talent and cap space committed...You watch the tape of Kuzmenko on the power play and I would say it's hard not to think that really it's a net front guy who might move on, which would be Boeser or Pearson in order to make space."
Miller, who played a bunch at centre this season, but is traditionally also a left winger, is another trade candidate in focus here. Able to sign an extension as of July 1, if the Canucks can't come to terms with him and would rather not walk into next season without having Miller signed to an extension, getting Kuzmenko on the left side helps offset that offensive loss at least a little. The Russian is unlikely to be a 99-point player right away of course, but trading Miller should also bring back a nice return from any of his many suitors.
Of course, there's always a chance Kuzmenko just doesn't work out, and you'd hate to make any other monumental decisions before he even steps on the ice.
"The thing to remember about this type of signing, this is a low risk, high upside signing from a Vancouver perspective," Drance continued. "Kuzmenko is an impressive player, but there's also a real chance that he ultimately isn't a huge contributor. That he settles in as a third line power play specialist. For all the excitement, there's a real chance he's just a bit player or even less than that."
More than a smash hit being added to the Canucks, Kuzmenko is better viewed through the same lens as a prospect graduating out of the system and being afforded an opportunity at the NHL level. Vancouver doesn't have a lot of those types of youngsters pushing for jobs at forward, so Kuzmenko is found money in that way. Would you trade away a Miller type of player just because one prospect is ready for a step up?
It's a decision to be very careful with.
Kuzmenko would become eligible for a contract extension midway through next season, and his future with the team is believed to have been part of the pitch from Vancouver. This isn't a team with a ton of cap flexibility beyond next season -- $48.497 million is already committed to the 2023-24 roster, and that's before any other acquisitions this off-season, or accounting for potential extensions for Miller, Horvat or Boeser.
"It certainly is suggestive of some of what we might see this off-season and some of the bigger moves this club might make," Drance said.
"And perhaps they just decide to go with a loaded top nine group."