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This is not the right time for the Canucks to trade Andrei Kuzmenko

Jim Rutherford on the trade speculation surrounding Kuzmenko: "We'll keep an open mind."
Andrei Kuzmenko isn't scoring for the Vancouver Canucks the way he was last season.

At this time last season, Andrei Kuzmenko had 13 goals and 25 points in 27 games, trailing only the red-hot Bo Horvat on the Canucks in goalscoring.

This season, things haven’t quite gone the same way for Kuzmenko. He has just four goals this season and 15 points in 25 games. Along the way, he’s found his way into his head coach’s doghouse, with Rick Tocchet making him a healthy scratch for two games and, more recently, demoting him to the fourth line.

This isn’t what the Canucks were hoping for from Kuzmenko in the first year of his two-year, $11 million contract. 

Unsurprisingly, as Kuzmenko’s ice time has gone down, trade rumours have followed. Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported on Hockey Night in Canada that multiple teams have inquired with the Canucks about Kuzmenko.

When Sportsnet’s Iain MacIntyre asked Jim Rutherford about the trade speculation surrounding Kuzmenko, the Canucks president of hockey operations said, “Well, we'll keep an open mind. I don't want to just lock ourselves into one answer. But we need to continue to try to help.”

Rutherford made it clear what direction they want to go, however, in a discussion with Postmedia’s Patrick Johnston: “Our preference is that he gets on track.”

In other words, the Canucks don’t really want to trade Kuzmenko right now and it’s understandable why. After all, he scored 39 goals last season, albeit with one of the highest shooting percentages in NHL history. He may only be on pace for 13 goals this season but the Canucks have to believe there’s more scoring there to unlock.

“We’re at the point now where he’s feeling the pressure. He’s squeezing the stick,” said Rutherford to Johnston. “He’s passing when he should be shooting and shooting when he should be passing. And it’s hard. He’s got to get to a point where he can relax again.”

“We all have to just try to figure out how he gets back on track,” he added.

It’s not just that Kuzmenko isn’t scoring, of course. The bigger issue is that he’s not following through on the details his coach demands, whether it’s being the first man in on the forecheck, taking straight lines to places he needs to be on the ice, or picking up his assignments in the defensive zone.

So, what happens if he doesn’t get back on track? What happens if he’s not a fit with Tocchet as a coach and his system? Should the Canucks look to trade him?

Let’s keep in mind, the Canucks re-signed Kuzmenko to his current two-year deal just four days after hiring Tocchet. There was no time then to see how Kuzmenko fit in the new structure Tocchet was preaching and there was some concern when he immediately found his ice time slashed and was benched late in games. 

But Kuzmenko was also impressively productive under Tocchet. He had 20 goals and 33 points in 36 games under Tocchet last season, even though he averaged just 16:32 per game in ice time. The two of them figured things out last season; can they do it again this season?

The Canucks have to hope so because now might be the worst possible time to trade Kuzmenko.

There’s a reason why other teams are sniffing around Kuzmenko, looking to pick him off like a lioness hunting down the slowest gazelle in a herd. They’re trying to snag Kuzmenko at his lowest value in hopes of parting with a pittance to acquire a player with the potential to soar in the future.

Truly, the right time to trade Kuzmenko was at last season’s trade deadline when he was in the midst of a shooting-percentage-fueled rampage and was on an entry-level contract that could have easily fit into a contender’s salary cap picture. There was every possibility that Kuzmenko was a flash-in-the-pan like Jonathan Cheechoo or Brad Boyes in terms of scoring rather than a potential Artemi Panarin, so selling high last season to bring back a key piece to help build a Stanley Cup contender should have been seriously considered.

But that time has passed. What the Canucks should avoid now is selling low.

Kuzmenko's 27.3% shooting percentage from last season was never going to last but is he really a true-talent 10.5% shooter as he has been this season? That's a little below league average for an NHL forward and Kuzmenko certainly seems like he should have more finish than the average NHL forward.

Kuzmenko has the ability to bounce back from this slump. He’s lacking confidence in his game right now but he has the talent to rattle off a scoring streak, especially if he continues to get time on the top power play unit. The tap-ins and tip-ins that were his bread and butter last season won't elude him forever.

If the Canucks are going to trade Kuzmenko, it should be after he has recouped some of his value and proven that he’s not just a one-season wonder. Of course, to do that he’ll have to figure out how to succeed once again under Tocchet. If he does, the Canucks might not want to trade him at all.