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Canucks making Andrei Kuzmenko a healthy scratch is a bold move

With just three goals in 19 games, Andrei Kuzmenko isn't scoring anywhere near the way he did last season for the Vancouver Canucks.
Andrei Kuzmenko's goalscoring has dried up to start the season for the Vancouver Canucks.

"I think Kuzy needs a reset."

That was Vancouver Canucks head coach Rick Tocchet on Friday after the team's morning skate ahead of their game against the Seattle Kraken. Andrei Kuzmenko will be a healthy scratch on Friday night, 19 games into the first season of his two-year, $11 million contract.

UPDATE: Kuzmenko will also be a healthy scratch for Saturday night's game against the San Jose Sharks.

It's a bold move for Tocchet not only because he's scratching a forward with a $5.5 million contract but also because he went straight to the nuclear option of a scratch instead of simply bumping him down the lineup or off the first power play unit for a game or two. It's a clear sign that the coaching staff want Kuzmenko to be a major contributor in the top-six and are willing to take drastic steps to get him back to that level.

Kuzmenko has put up points to start the season, with 14 points in 19 games, but the goals have been harder to come by. His three goals in 19 games is a 13-goal pace — a far cry from the 39 goals he scored last season.

Of course, those 39 goals were scored with a ludicrously high 27.3% shooting percentage — the seventh-highest in NHL history since the NHL first started recording the statistic in 1959. It was inevitable that his shooting percentage would regress this season and it has, falling to a more pedestrian 10.7%. He's also getting fewer shots per game, which is not a good sign for a player who already didn't get nearly enough shots on goal

Tocchet, however, is less concerned by Kuzmenko's lack of goals; he's worried about his play away from the puck.

"I think he needs to get his game a little sharper," Tocchet told reporters in Seattle. "When you’re not scoring, you’ve gotta make sure of your details in your own end. He’s thinking too much. There's some system stuff that we have to count on — not just him, everybody — to be in those positions. So, I feel he needs a reset. He needs to work with me a little bit more on the ice. We haven't had a lot of practice time."

Kuzmenko has been better on the forecheck this season than he was last season, with an extra jump in his skating to win races and some savvy plays to win board battles. While his details in the offensive zone have improved, some of the details of his game in the defensive zone have been suspect.

"Last year is last year," said Tocchet. "It's a different team, it's a different way of playing. We're in the fight now and we're trying to play a little bit more up-tempo and we've got to get Kuzy just a little up to speed on that stuff."

His line with Elias Pettersson and Ilya Mikheyev has been on the ice for a lot of goals against at 5-on-5 of late. Some have suggested that Pettersson is playing through an injury (a suggestion Pettersson dismissed on Friday) but Kuzmenko's defensive game hasn't helped. Tocchet has called him out in previous games for not working hard enough — a mortal sin for a coach like Tocchet.

"82-game schedule, you're going to go through this stuff. It's only his second year," said Tocchet. "He's not an eight-year veteran, so we've got to give him some rope to learn the way we want to play."

For what it's worth, Kuzmenko currently is second on the Canucks in corsi percentage at 5-on-5, behind only Conor Garland, who has been the driving force behind the team's third line. While Kuzmenko has been somewhat sheltered, starting a lot more shifts in the offensive zone than in the defensive zone, he's still been a positive possession player despite his defensive miscues.

In Kuzmenko's place, Sam Lafferty skated on Pettersson's line with Mikheyev at morning skate. Lafferty brings a lot of speed and forechecking to his game and has pitched in some scoring as well, putting up 9 points in 20 games. Notably, he has four goals to Kuzmenko's three. While Lafferty is unlikely to be a long-term fit in the top-six, he's worth a try for one game.

"Quite frankly, we've got to get that line going a little bit," said Tocchet. :It's been struggling, so maybe putting up a guy like Sam Lafferty creates some turnovers and will help that line."

On the first power play unit, the Canucks practiced with Filip Hronek in place of Kuzmenko, giving them a two-defenceman setup that has gone out of fashion in the NHL. Hronek adds a big shot from the point and chemistry with Quinn Hughes but it remains to be seen if it can be as successful as the four-forward power play the Canucks have been using all season.

This isn't the first time Kuzmenko has been scratched, of course. Bruce Boudreau scratched the winger early in the 2022-23 season for a game against the Boston Bruins. Kuzmenko responded with a five-game point streak shortly after he came out of the press box, putting up 10 points in those five games. The Canucks would love to see a similar response this season.