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Canucks: Is Tocchet benching Kuzmenko a cause for concern?

Just a few games after signing a two-year contract extension, Andrei Kuzmenko's ice time has been slashed.
Rick Tocchet talks to Elias Pettersson and Andrei Kuzmenko during a Vancouver Canucks practice.

Andrei Kuzmenko played just two games for new Vancouver Canucks head coach Rick Tocchet before signing a two-year contract extension worth $5.5 million per year.

A few games later, Kuzmenko has found his way into Tocchet’s doghouse. In back-to-back games in New York, Kuzmenko’s ice time was slashed in the second and third periods, even as the Canucks were attempting to mount a comeback.

It might seem strange to bench the player who was tied for the team lead in goalscoring at the time, but that’s what Tocchet did. It worked out just fine against the New York Islanders, as the Canucks scored four unanswered goals, three of them assisted by the player who replaced Kuzmenko on the top line with Elias Pettersson and on the first power play unit: Brock Boeser.

Kuzmenko finished with 12:00 in ice time against the New York Rangers and 12:17 against the Islanders, his lowest ice time since November. 

Tocchet has stressed the importance of details and accountability. So far, Kuzmenko has been the one taking the brunt of the accountability. It’s just two games, of course, but it’s still somewhat concerning. What if Kuzmenko, who thrived under Bruce Boudreau, just isn’t a fit for Tocchet?

"You can't be bad in every area."

After the game against the Rangers, Tocchet had some harsh words for a segment of his team.

“We had four or five guys, who were just — they weren’t good,” said Tocchet. “I’ve played the game, I’ve been bad myself, but if you’re bad — if you don’t have it — you’ve got to make sure that you get the puck in deep or that you’re in good position. You can’t be bad in every area and I thought we had five guys that were just not good.”

When asked specifically if Kuzmenko was part of that group, Tocchet said he was.

“He wasn’t good tonight,” said Tocchet. “He was spinning everywhere but it’s not just him.”

“Spinning everywhere” seemed to relate directly to what Tocchet said about getting the puck in deep. Kuzmenko’s style of play typically involves hanging onto the puck as much as possible and rarely, if ever, playing a dump-and-chase game. 

That style of play can pay enormous dividends if you’re able to convert that possession into scoring chances and then into goals, but it can backfire if you lose possession in dangerous areas of the ice. Tocchet seems to be suggesting that when it’s not working in a particular game, you have to fall back on playing it safe: get the puck in deep, play a sound, positional game, and hope to play better next time.

It relates to something he said about J.T. Miller when he was first hired.

“Sometimes, you’ve gotta live for another shift. Everything can’t be high-risk,” said Tocchet. “You’re up 3-2, if the play’s there, make it, but you can’t throw pucks in the middle. And I’m not picking on J.T., I’m just talking in general, that’s my philosophy.”

In other words, he doesn’t want players trying to do everything every shift, that it’s okay to make the safe, boring play knowing that you will get more shifts and more chances to do something more exciting.

Kuzmenko leads Canucks in several underlying statistics

But here’s the thing about Kuzmenko: his style of play has worked this season.

Kuzmenko leads the Canucks in corsi percentage at 51.62%, with the Canucks out-attempting their opposition 591-to-554 when he’s on the ice at 5-on-5. They’ve out-shot their opposition 322-to-303 with Kuzmenko on the ice at 5-on-5, the best shot differential among Canucks forwards, and out-scored their opposition 43-to-37.

While Kuzmenko can be a high-risk player, those risks have paid off more than they’ve cost the Canucks this season. 

Part of that has come from playing with Elias Pettersson, but Pettersson has also been better when he’s played with Kuzmenko than without him — the Canucks have been significantly outshot, out-chanced, and out-scored when Pettersson has been on the ice at 5-on-5 without Kuzmenko this season.

Some of that is certainly situational, with Pettersson called upon to play in tough defensive situations, but it’s still worth noting. After all, Pettersson is having a career year and it's come primarily with Kuzmenko on his wing.


This might all turn out for the best. Tocchet may be able to turn Kuzmenko into an even more effective player by getting him to improve the details of his game.

"We’ve got to value little plays," said Tocchet after the game against the Rangers. "There’s bad habits that filter in that we have to get rid of.”

Let’s also keep in mind that Boudreau did more than just bench Kuzmenko earlier in the season; he made him a healthy scratch.  

So maybe there’s nothing to worry about. But it’s something to keep an eye on as the Canucks head into the home stretch of the 2022-23 season.