The Vancouver Canucks have a depth issue. The issue is, they have no depth.
That’s not a judgement coming from outside the Canucks but the opinion of those within the organization. President of hockey operations Jim Rutherford has stressed the need to build up the team’s depth, as has general manager Patrik Allvin, who suggested a path towards getting the depth they need.
“For us to become a consistent playoff team and a consistent contender, we need to build up the depth of the organization,” said Allvin. “And that's through the draft and signing of European and college free agent players.”
European and college free agents are always tantalizing because a team can add them solely for the price of their entry-level contracts. They don’t cost a team any assets beyond a spot within their 50-contract limit.
Who is the top free agent available? Andrei Kuzmenko, a 26-year-old winger currently playing for SKA St. Petersburg in the KHL.
“Allvin is looking closely at Russian forward Andrey Kuzmenko,” said Darren Dreger. “The 26-year-old is at the top of the charts when you look at the pending unrestricted free agent Russians — and Europeans, for that matter…There’s probably about 30 other teams that want a crack at this guy as well.”
Canucks could have an edge in signing Kuzmenko
Why is there suddenly so much interest in a 26-year-old winger from the KHL? For starters, this is the first time in four years that he might be available for an NHL team to sign.
When he was 22 back in 2018, Kuzmenko drew significant attention from the NHL, with his agent, Dan Millstein, reporting that 24 teams had shown interest. That interest wasn’t enough to draw him across the Atlantic Ocean to the NHL, as he instead signed a four-year deal with SKA St. Petersburg.
That contract expires at the end of this season, meaning he is potentially available to an NHL team. According to multiple sources, most NHL teams are interested.
But the Canucks could have an edge for two reasons.
One is that the Canucks already have one of Kuzmenko’s former teammates on their roster: Vasily Podkolzin.
Podkolzin played with Kuzmenko on SKA over the three seasons previous to this one. He even spent a little bit of time on Kuzmenko’s line, such as on this 2-on-1 goal where Podkolzin set up Kuzmenko with a pass under the defenceman’s stick.
Even having just one familiar face in Vancouver — someone with whom to converse in Russian and maybe share a favourite meal with now and then — can make a world of difference for making a player feel comfortable. Certainly, other teams have Russian players who Kuzmenko might be familiar with but the SKA connection is a bonus for the Canucks.
The other reason the Canucks might have an edge is that they are willing to promise free agents a guaranteed spot in the lineup.
“Our sales pitch to those people is that we can guarantee guys spots on the team,” said Rutherford. “It's not like we're coming off going to the Finals. We're a team that's still trying to build the team up and when we say to those free agents, you're going to be on the team, our word is good — they're going to be on the team.”
That has to be a tantalizing prospect for someone like Kuzmenko — a promise that he won’t be sent down to the AHL but will have a real chance to play in the NHL. It’s not like Kuzmenko would have much competition anyway. The Canucks don’t exactly have prospects kicking down the door to make the team.
Kuzmenko has highlight-reel skill
So, why should the Canucks be interested in Kuzmenko in the first place? To put it simply, he is very, very good.
In his four seasons with SKA, Kuzmenko went from decent to one of the best players in the KHL. The 5’11” winger finished second in the KHL in scoring this season, with 20 goals and 53 points in 45 games before the KHL suspended the rest of the regular season due to COVID-19.
Kuzmenko is ranked number one among college, junior, and European free agents by Corey Pronman of The Athletic.
“Kuzmenko has a very high skill level, being able to beat KHL defenders with his one-on-on play often and create many highlight reel moments,” said Pronman. “He can make creative passes and improvises well in tight areas. He has the flashy skill but also plays hard.”
That flashy skill showed up in this goal against Jokerit from back in October, where he took a pass to gain the zone, undressed the defender with a slick toe drag, cut to the net while protecting the puck with his right skate, then flicked the puck up under the bar when the goaltender dropped early.
Kuzmenko can create something out of nothing, such as this solo effort where he picked off a pass in the neutral zone and moved in 1-on-3. He beat one defender, then faked a move to the front of the net, fooling another defender and the goaltender before finishing off on the wraparound.
Kuzmenko also has an excellent shot. It may not be the hardest shot but it’s accurate and he can get it off quickly. More than that, he knows how to use deception to make the most of his shot, as in this goal, where he confidently waits and changes the angle significantly before firing the shot through the defender’s legs, ensuring that the goaltender has no idea where the shot is coming from.
While he’s adept at scoring goals, Kuzmenko is also an excellent playmaker. He particularly likes to create from below the goal line, whether at even-strength or on the power play, like this lovely no-look against-the-grain pass to Nikita Gusev for a wide-open net.
He’s under 6 feet, but Kuzmenko is strong on the puck and doesn’t shy away from the most dangerous areas on the ice. On the power play he rotates from net front to below the goal line, frequently banging in rebounds or tipping in passes while dealing with bigger defencemen in front of the net.
It’s not just offensive skill either. Kuzmenko has a strong two-way game to go with all the points, backchecking intelligently and making good defensive reads to take away passing lanes.
“His game is so well refined at this point,” reads one scouting report. “He plays all three zones with fire, makes smart, little plays. Shows exceedingly good edgework and has a strong, solid base. Variety of shots, vision and game awareness. He could be an effective player on North American ice and could easily be a two-way middle six forward with scoring upside.”
"The right fit is most important to him."
Kuzmenko has been on NHL radars for years, dating back to his first year of draft eligibility back in 2014. He was ranked 26th by Central Scouting among international skaters heading into the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, right behind a familiar name for Canucks fans: Gustav Forsling, now playing big minutes with the Florida Panthers.
The Canucks drafted Forsling in the fifth round but Kuzmenko went undrafted. Central scouting ranked him again as a 20-year-old in 2016: 47th among international skaters, just ahead of Sebastian Aho — not the forward but the defenceman, who was drafted a year later and is now in the NHL with the New York Islanders.
Now, eight years after he originally could have been drafted, it seems likely that Kuzmenko will finally end up in the NHL like Forsling and Aho. He’ll be eligible for just a one-year entry-level contract, according to the CBA, and will immediately become a free agent after, so teams will likely be looking to quickly get a contract extension done in short order.
He won’t be signing just yet, however. While the remainder of the regular season has been canceled, the KHL playoffs will still be running, moved up to start on March 1. SKA is at the top of the table in the West and is expected to make a long playoff run, so it will likely be a while before NHL teams get a decision from Kuzmenko.
“According to several sources, he’s in no hurry to sign and likely won’t commit until after his KHL season ends,” said Elliotte Friedman. “He’s also told teams the right fit is most important to him.”
Will that right fit be the Canucks, with a former teammate and a promised spot on the roster? We’ll just have to wait and see.