Another day, another Canucks management decision to chew on and debate.
The Vancouver Canucks re-signed Andrei Kuzmenko to a two-year extension Thursday, which comes with a $5.5 million cap hit. At face value, this is a fair and understandable deal. Kuzmenko has exceeded all expectations in his first season, with 21 goals and 43 points in 47 games. He’s become a power play presence and has found chemistry with Elias Pettersson.
This is a player with 30-goal, 70-point upside right out of the gate, so $5.5 million is great value.
“Both sides agreed the two years made the most sense,” Kuzmenko’s agent, Dan Milstein, said on 650’s Canucks Talk. “In two years Andrei is only going to be 29 and in two years the salary cap will go up from $82.5 to as much as $90-100 million and Andrei will have a sample of a couple hundred games or so and he’ll be able to make a decision and sign a long term extension at that point in time.”
But the question will be asked: for this team, right now, would a trade have been the better route?
Consider that Kuzmenko is putting up this production on a $950,000 contract and that the flat cap continues to hinder teams from buying. But any team could have absorbed Kuzmenko’s current contract at this deadline, which may have created a market.
And, of course, the Canucks are seemingly caught in the league’s undesirable mushy middle. Dropping cap, adding draft and prospect capital is what many think the priority should be for this team, though senior management has indicated a tear-down rebuild isn’t the desired path. That maybe should have been a hint Kuzmenko was more likely to stay.
Kuzmenko does come with some level of risk, mainly that he’s scoring with a 24.7 shooting percentage that opens some potential for regression. Of course, on a two-year term and $5.5 million AAV, this isn’t a contract that will burn the Canucks as the salary cap starts to rise again. So, in that sense, they likely won’t regret it.
We wonder, though, if in two years the Canucks are still languishing and stuck in this mud, we’ll look back and wonder which steps the organization could have taken to better set itself up for success, and if trading Kuzmenko at possible peak value could have been a pivotal part of a new path.
“The senior management including now some of the guys on the coaching staff, have won two Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins 5-10 years ago,” Milstein said. “You guys should be excited. There’s good stuff that will be happening. Gotta be patient. Those championship teams have to go through a lot of trouble to win the Stanley Cup.”
To get a little deeper into what Kuzmenko is as a player, how he projects through his prime years, and why the Canucks decided to keep him, we turn to our own scout, Jason Bukala.
• Kuzmenko’s done everything I expected – and more – since arriving in Vancouver, so the contract makes sense in that regard when considering his trajectory before arriving in the NHL and now the reality that he can score at this level.
• His career has been building momentum. The KHL has traditionally not been an easy league to score in, but his year over year stats improved during his development.
Including his time representing Russia on the international stage his stats from 2018-2022:
Fast forward to the year he is having in Vancouver and it shows he is consistently having more and more overall impact offensively. He’s on pace for over 30 goals and 70 points.
• There is no doubt Kuzmenko provides scoring at the top of the Canucks lineup. He’s heavy down low around the crease and creative from below the goal line. He has a fantastic release and the ability to extend plays along the wall.
• His even strength play has been better than I expected. A player like Kuzmenko has to be fully engaged the entire 60 minutes. His offensive zone exits have been mostly on time and he generally tracks back responsibly. Having said that, he is as guilty as any Canuck player of lacking detail at times — and losing sight of his check in his zone.
• What could the Canucks have received in a trade before the deadline? I believe they could have negotiated a first-round pick in return for Kuzmenko.
• Why a first-round pick?
The easiest way I can describe such a proposal is this:
Imagine you are a team with a first-round pick this season and you magically have an option appear to add a 30-goal scorer right now or wait on developing a player down the line.
As a team you would look at your recently populated draft list (after your amateur meetings) and compare a name off that list who is slotted between 22–32.
If the name of the player on your draft list, in your estimation, doesn’t have the same kind of scoring upside as Kuzmenko, you would have done the deal.
Conversely, the Canucks would view this transaction the exact same way. They already have a found commodity who they acquired for free and is providing offence.
The organization clearly decided it was comfortable with what it had instead of what it might have if it traded Kuzmenko to a contending team (with a late draft slot).
• It’s interesting to note how I viewed Kuzmenko before he signed with an NHL club. Here’s his scouting card from last spring :