Canucks Should Wait Until After the Season to Extend Kuzmenko

On January 1, 2023, the Vancouver Canucks can extend 26-year-old rookie Andrei Kuzmenko. The Russian forward has impressed through the first two months of his NHL career as he has produced on the team’s top line and their first power-play unit. Kuzmenko is adapting to the North American game as the season continues.

Although he has been productive to start the season, it will be tough to figure out exactly how much he is worth on his next contract by the new year. Kuzmenko’s agent commented about the forwards next contract.

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“No clue to be honest when it comes to a number,” agent Dan Milstein said. “Just proud of him. It’s been a long road to get him to NHL. Andrei deserves every bit of it through hard work and dedication.”

Kuzmenko is showing the Canucks they are lucky he signed with the club to start the season. Meanwhile, the Canucks see him as a part of the roster for the long term. However, both sides are better off waiting until the end of the season before finalizing a contract for the forward.

Kuzmenko’s Journey to NHL

Before making the jump to the NHL, Kuzmenko played in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) for eight seasons from 2014-15 to 2021-22. In his first four seasons, he played with CSKA Moscow, scoring 21 goals and 46 points in 106 games. After four years with CSKA, he drew interest from the NHL as a free agent. His agent Millstein noted 24 teams showed interest in him in 2018, however, Kuzmenko wasn’t interested in coming over to the NHL. Instead, he joined St. Petersburg SKA before the 2018-19 season. With SKA, he scored 64 goals and posted 154 points in 209 games.

Andrei Kuzmenko SKA St. Petersburg
Andrei Kuzmenko, former SKA St. Petersburg (Photo by Maksim Konstantinov/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

After his four-year contract with St. Petersburg ended and a career year under his belt (20 goals, 53 points in 45 games), he decided to make the jump to the NHL. Kuzmenko became one of the top free agents in the NHL last season. The Canucks emerged as one of the team’s the Russian forward showed interest in as president Jim Rutherford stated the club can guarantee playing time for him.

“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.”

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The organization became one of the final four teams Kuzmenko was interested in signing with. On July 13, 2022, the Canucks signed Kuzmenko to a one-year, entry-level deal.

Kuzmenko’s Hot Start

Kuzmenko’s start with the Canucks has been interesting. He scored his first NHL goal in his first game against the Edmonton Oilers and scored a hattrick earlier in November against the Anahiem Ducks. He was also a healthy scratch in a game against the Boston Bruins a week and a half later. However, his response to being a healthy scratch has been impressive. He’s scored six goals and posted 14 points in the 11 games since. Those 14 points in 10 games give him a total of 13 goals and 25 points in 26 games during his rookie season. His 13 goals are second on the team, and his 25 points are fourth. Kuzmenko also has a 25-shooting percentage this season. Head coach Bruce Boudreau discussed the rookie getting used to the NHL game (from ‘Canucks: Andrei Kuzmenko can shoot to thrill when winger applies right skill,’ The Province, November 29, 2022). 

Andrei Kuzmenko Vancouver Canucks
Andrei Kuzmenko, Vancouver Canucks (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

“It’s the biggest thing he has to learn to continue to get better,” said Boudreau. “When there’s a guy in front of him, he wants to always make the deke and everything else.

“But when he’s shooting the puck and there’s nobody in front of him, his release is as good as anybody. And it’s fun to watch because it’s very accurate.”

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The forward has also plays on one of the league’s best lines this season, along with Elias Pettersson and Ilya Mikheyev. The trio has scored 14 goals together in 155.8 minutes played together, good for seventh in the league. Every other line that ranks ahead of the trio has played at least 38.7 more minutes.

Contract Projection

The Canucks are in a unique spot with Kuzmenko and his contract situation. As the Athletic’s Thomas Drance suggests, both sides would be wise to maximize the number of NHL games the Russian forward plays before finalizing a new deal (from ‘What we’re hearing about Brock Boeser on the trade block, Bo Horvat and more,’ The Athletic, December 4, 2022). The 26-year-old is on pace to score 39 goals and post 75 points in 81 games this season. Drance adds if Kuzmenko is in the 50-60 point range, he will likely be valued in the $4-5 million range. If he posts more than 60 points, as he is projected to, he will likely look for term on his next contract as well.

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The Canucks will likely hope they can sign him to a shorter-term deal, as they will be able to judge how much he is worth exactly. A two to a three-year contract with a cap hit of $5 million will be ideal. However, it seems unlikely Kuzmenko will finish under 60 points at this rate. Therefore, he’d likely want a contract in the $6 million range for around four to five years.

Canucks Will Need to Clear Cap Space 

Regardless of the cap hit on Kuzmenko’s next deal, the Canucks will need to clear cap space. Although it’ll be difficult trading some of the players with higher cap hits in, Tyler Myers and Oliver Ekman-Larsson, the club is looking to move some of their other valuable players. Brock Boeser has emerged as the first piece the team will likely trade this season. His $6.650 million cap hit should be enough to make room for Kuzmenko.

However, players such as Conor Garland may also be on the move. Therefore, the Canucks should have enough room to extend the Russian at the expense of a few other forwards.

Waiting Until the End of the Season Will Be Beneficial

Both sides will benefit from waiting until the end of the 2022-23 season before agreeing to an extension. The Canucks and Kuzmenko are in a unique spot as the Russian is in his rookie season at the age of 26. He is projected to finish with more than 60 points, which could lead to a contract with a good amount of term. As for the Canucks, the team will have to move a few contracts to make a deal work with the rookie.