Oilers Would Have to Sacrifice Key Players to Sign KHL’s Kuzmenko

The Edmonton Oilers are going to be very busy in the offseason with their expiring contracts and deciding who to bring back for how long. Add another name to the mix as Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) star Andrei Kuzmenko is expected to come over to the NHL and sign with a team.

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The Oilers are at the top of his wish list, which is something you don’t normally see from European free agents.

This creates an opportunity, but also more potential problems for the Oilers in the offseason. Kuzmenko looks to follow in the footsteps of players who have made the jump over before him and found success. I look at the key players the Oilers would have to sacrifice if they do bring this player onto the team as well as the connection he already has to the team.

Former Skilled KHL Players Have Found Success in the NHL

Kuzmenko has all the tools to be an elite scorer in the NHL. Many times players go unnoticed if they spent years playing over in Russia and never make their way to the NHL. There have been a number of players you may be familiar with who have come over after spending a good number of seasons in the KHL and have burst onto the scene in a big way.

A recent example and comparable is Artemi Panarin who posted a 1.15 points per game in his final season in the KHL before signing with the Chicago Blackhawks. Kuzmenko had the same scoring impact this season in his presumed final one in Russia, scoring 53 points in 45 regular season games and 12 points in 10 playoff games.

Artemi Panarin New York Rangers
Artemi Panarin, New York Rangers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Panarin signed a two-year, $7 million contract with the Blackhawks and scored 30 goals and 77 points in his rookie year and won the Calder Trophy.

Other examples of former KHL players coming over and having success include Kirill Kaprizov, Nikita Gusev, Ilya Mikheyev, Artem Zub, and even Nikita Zaitsev. Kaprizov and Panarin are already stars in the league while Mikheyev and Zub are on the rise. Even players like Evgeny Dadonov and Alexander Radulov have found a ton of success in the NHL after returning from the KHL. The difference is they spent a short time in the NHL first and made a return years later.

Of course, there is the chance that it is hard to adapt to the NHL’s style of play like how Gusev had trouble, but it still didn’t stop him from scoring 44 points in 66 games his first season.

Oilers Would Have to Sacrifice Players in Order to Sign Kuzmenko

Players coming over to North America from the KHL generally don’t expect too much on their first deals and sign for short-term. This is a smart strategy for them and works for the NHL teams considering they are both taking a chance and seeing if they can play the different style of hockey.

If the Oilers do intend on bringing Kuzmenko onto the team this summer, I would expect a two or three year deal at $3-4 million average annual value (AAV). That is what Panarin did. Gusev did things a bit differently, but he had also cracked the top 15 in all-time KHL points at age 26. He signed a $925,000 contract with the Vegas Golden Knights and then a two-year, $9 million contract with the New Jersey Devils after that.

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

More than one sacrifice would have to be made in order for the Oilers to sign Kuzmenko to the expected short-term, mid-range deal. Despite the cap increasing by $1 million for next season, the Oilers have four key forwards that are upcoming free agents and Darnell Nurse getting a $3.65 million increase.

The free agent forwards include Evander Kane, Jesse Puljujarvi, Kailer Yamamoto, and Ryan McLeod. The Oilers are certainly signing McLeod, and it will probably be short-term with a low AAV considering he will be coming off of his rookie season and looking to prove himself more. Yamamoto will demand less than Kane and Puljujarvi and can be signed more easily. While there seems to be a decision on Holland’s hands between Kane and Puljujarvi if it comes down to that. They are perfect complements to each other considering Kane is aggressive and can score while Puljujarvi is a two-way machine and does a ton away from the puck, not getting the recognition he deserves.

Kane is the only unrestricted free agent (UFA) of the four players and is also seven years older than Puljujarvi who is the closest in age to him. The Oilers should be looking to stay young and keep a player who is in the right spots to score but just hasn’t been able to finish as much as everyone would like in Puljujarvi. Production can come and go for anyone, but the way he plays the game doesn’t have the same ups and downs. It’s a much more consistent style of play.

Kane may price himself out of what the Oilers can afford with so many more suitors who would also likely offer him term. There are advantages to keeping Kane, but the Oilers would really have to work the cap and wouldn’t be able to bring in Kuzmenko.

Not only will the Oilers have to move on from one of those key forwards, they will also already have to be moving on from some less impactful players who are making more money than they are worth. Zack Kassian is the name that should come to everybody’s mind. He is a bottom-six player at best who has been invisible most of the season. Even if he is playing a physical brand of hockey, he still isn’t worth the $3.2 million a year the Oilers are paying him. Especially not with the money allocated elsewhere.

Zack Kassian Edmonton Oilers
Zack Kassian, Edmonton Oilers (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Tyson Barrie should also be a priority to move with the emergence of Evan Bouchard. The Oilers can’t afford to be paying a third-pairing defenceman $4.5 million when Bouchard or even Nurse can do his job on the power play. The Oilers also have Philip Broberg and Markus Niemelainen ready to make the jump to the NHL full-time.

The Oilers will likely have to run with Mike Smith and Stuart Skinner in net and let Mikko Koskinen walk, while players like Josh Archibald, Kris Russell, and Kyle Turris will also go.

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Kuzmenko will be able to fit in the top nine somewhere and play with a playmaker at centre no matter which line he plays on. But the cap situation and roster spots just don’t allow the Oilers to keep everyone for next season, especially if they intend to bring on this KHL superstar. In the event of signing Kuzmenko, he is a left winger who is right handed. He could slide right in on the wing after another departure from the top six.

Kuzmenko’s Agent Already Familiar With the Oilers

Kuzmenko’s agent, Dan Millstein, also represents Kane and Matvei Petrov. There is familiarity there and with general manager Ken Holland (from ‘The Edmonton Oilers resuscitated season is at least partly due to a new D-pairing; 9 Things’, Edmonton Journal, April 10, 2022). Kane was given a chance by the Oilers this season and it has turned out extremely well to this point. There have been no problems and he is scoring at his best goals per game of his career while playing alongside Connor McDavid.

Evander Kane Edmonton Oilers
Evander Kane, Edmonton Oilers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Holland was one of the only general managers willing to give Kane a chance once he was able to sign with a team. That has to have gotten Holland and the Oilers in the good books of Millstein and given them a little extra leverage in signing a player ready to make the jump to the NHL.

It isn’t believed that the Oilers are going to have to put up a huge fight, as Kuzmenko is apparently already leaning heavily towards the Oilers as his choice in NHL teams.

Petrov signed an entry-level deal with the Oilers back in November and looks to be a part of the future in Edmonton even if Kane’s future plans are still undetermined. If Kuzmenko signs with the Oilers, another Russian who has a connection with him could help him down the line if he were to stay for a few years.

Related: Oilers Would Much Rather Play Kings Than Golden Knights in Round 1

The Oilers could add this skilled forward for less than what Kane is expected to demand on his next contract. While the Oilers would be wise to sign whichever one they can to a shorter-term deal costing less money since they have a number of talented prospects in the pipeline. A solid choice would be sacrificing re-signing Kane for five-plus years and moving on from Kassian and Barrie while adding Kuzmenko for a season or two at the most.

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