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‘Please shoot’: How Kuzmenko is breaking his shoot-last mentality

“You didn’t see me in the KHL. In the KHL, if I have maybe one shot in a game it was a big surprise."
Vancouver Canucks forward Andrei Kuzmenko celebrates a goal against the Dallas Stars.

This is the first time in his hockey career that Andrei Kuzmenko has scored 30 goals in a season.

With a lucky deflection goal on Wednesday night against the Anaheim Ducks, Kuzmenko tied Elias Pettersson for the team lead in goals and landed himself in 21st in the NHL. It’s a fantastic achievement for the 27-year-old winger in his first NHL season.

What is even more surprising is that he’s done it while averaging fewer than two shots per game. Of the top-60 goal scorers in the NHL this season, no one has taken fewer shots than Kuzmenko. He may be 21st in goals but he’s 191st in the NHL in shots on goal.

“To be honest, I thought he’d be shooting the puck more,” said J.T. Miller. “He’s got one of the hardest wristshots on the team, if not the hardest. I think he looks to pass a lot. I can only imagine if he just comes in with a shot-first mentality more, how much more he can score.”

"I want to pass to Petey, I want to pass to Beauvillier."

Kuzmenko agrees. He knows he needs to shoot more because it’s been a constant refrain throughout his career, whether in Russia or in the NHL.

“You didn’t see me in the KHL,” said Kuzmenko with a grin. “In the KHL, if I have maybe one shot in a game, it was a big surprise. A lot of moments, it’s just pass, pass, pass, pass. My last coach in the KHL, he says to me, ‘Please shoot, you have a great shot: shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot.'

“Now, I finally understand. In this league, I want to shoot.”

For Kuzmenko, the challenge is breaking out of his pass-first mentality, as he is always looking to create a chance for his linemates instead of taking a shot himself.

“You want, in this moment, you want to shoot, you want to not pass,” said Kuzmenko. “There are a lot of moments for passes. Tocchet say, ‘Hey, don’t pass; shoot. You have a great shot.’ But I want to pass to Petey, I want to pass to Beauvillier.”

Kuzmenko’s reluctance to shoot the puck in the KHL got to the point that it became a running gag. 

“I remember one moment for me, there is one man who works in analytics at my last club,” said Kuzmenko. “He would watch video and see a couple shots and he would say, ‘Who is that?” and the analytics would say it was me. ‘Oh, you can shoot? Wow, that’s a big surprise for me!’ Yes, it’s a good joke, thanks.”

Now, Kuzmenko is hearing the same message from new new head coach, Rick Tocchet. He wants to make it clear that the message is getting through: it’s no longer a surprise when he has one shot in a game.

“It’s maybe eight years of coach saying to me, ‘Please shoot, please shoot, please shoot,’” said Kuzmenko. “Now, it’s a little better. Now, if there’s two shots for me in a game, wow, it’s a big surprise.”

"I want to help the team."

Despite the jokes, it’s clear that Kuzmenko takes the advice very seriously and he repeatedly said that this season and offseason are key moments in his career. He talked about what a difference the addition of Sergei Gonchar to the coaching staff has made for him. While Kuzmenko’s English is strong enough to capture the big picture, having Gonchar at practice and on the bench to discuss things in Russian has helped him with the finer details and the two frequently spend a lot of time going over video. 

“In this moment, I need to work,” said Kuzmenko, with "moment" referring to his entire rookie season. “This is a very important moment. I want to help the team. When there’s a very important moment to shoot, I help the team. I not shoot, I don’t help the team, I understand. Every day is better, better, better.”

Sometimes, video isn’t necessary, however, as Kuzmenko illustrated with a moment from the Canucks’ game against the Nashville Predators.

“I remember a moment last game, it was a bad mistake for me,” said Kuzmenko. “I had the puck, is a good moment for shot, maybe five metres between me and goalkeeper. I can shoot? No, I pass. I go on the bench, I watch on iPad, and Tocchet says to me, ‘Why you watch? Just please shoot! Easy! What do you need to watch? Shoot!’”

Kuzmenko then acted out putting the iPad away with a sheepish expression: “I say, ‘Okay coach,’ I put iPad, I sit down, think, ‘Okay, is bad moment for me, bad moment. Okay, Kuzy, next time, please shoot.’”

In other words, Tocchet was sending the message that there was no need to overanalyze the play. There was nothing to break down, no X's and O's — just an opportunity to keep it simple and shoot the puck.

For Tocchet, it's not just encouraging Kuzmenko to shoot but recognizing that a shot is often the less risky move. A shot on goal keeps the puck moving towards the opposing net by definition, which can lead to rebounds and other opportunities, while a mistimed pass on the rush can lead to a dangerous turnover with everyone's skates pointed in the wrong direction.

“Kuzy turned the puck over three times in a row, so I just sat him for a little bit,” said Tocchet after the Predators game. “He understood. He said, ‘Coach, my bad,’ you know. But I got him back out there.”

Kuzmenko has the highest shooting percentage in the NHL

Most of Kuzmenko’s goals have been tap-in goals from around the crease or tips in the slot. He has rarely used his heavy wristshot, though that’s partly because there’s limited time and space in the NHL to load up a proper wrist shot. When Kuzmenko has found himself in space, he’s more likely to use the quick release of his snapshot. 

He might have more time and space on the power play, but Kuzmenko has primarily been used down low as a net-front presence or passing option down low. The shooters on the power play have instead been Pettersson, Miller, and — before he was traded — Bo Horvat. 

Perhaps his prowess in practice will give him more opportunities to shoot on the power play. Kuzmenko said that Miller isn’t the first player on the team to say he has the hardest shot. He heard the same thing from one of the goaltenders he regularly faced in practice, Spencer Martin.

“Martin, same words,” said Kuzmenko, laughing. “Marty say about my shot, it is the best on this team. He say, ‘I don’t like this man.’ It’s a big problem with me.”

Martin isn’t the only Canucks goaltender who feels this way about Kuzmenko’s shot — that it is a nightmare to face in practice. It’s not just that it’s a hard shot, it’s that he’s adept at changing the angle before he shoots, making it very difficult to read off his blade. 

Clearly, Kuzmenko has put a lot of work into his shot. Now he’ll be spending the offseason working on the mental side of recognizing the right moment to use his shot during games. Getting more shots on goal will be key, as he’s currently riding the NHL’s highest shooting percentage at 25.9%.

A lot of bounces have gone Kuzmenko’s way this season, including his 30th goal, which was, ironically, a pass to Pettersson that deflected in off an opponent’s skate. When those bounces don’t go his way, getting more shots might be the only thing that gives him a second 30-goal season.