The Vancouver Canucks are one of six or seven teams that were on Andrei Kuzmenko’s NHL short list as the Russian free agent winger decides where he wants to play next season, and based on a conversation VHN had on Friday with his agent Dan Milstein who was calling from Europe, one gets the impression the Canucks are a favourite on a list that’s gotten shorter. It also appears it won’t be long before Kuzmenko makes a decision.
“Absolutely,” was Milstein’s answer when asked if Vancouver remained one of the 26-year-old’s options.
The interest is mutual. Vancouver Canucks President of Hockey Operations Jim Rutherford spoke to VHN on the topic earlier in the week.
“He’s the top free agent out of Russia,” Rutherford stated, “and he’s a really good player, and I would think with his skill set, he’s gonna become a really good NHL player.”
The right-handed left winger has played eight years in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), Russia’s top circuit. After four years with CSKA Moscow starting at age 18, Kuzmenko signed with SKA St. Petersburg, and at that point began turning his attention to the NHL.
“He’s been waiting for the four year contract to expire while focusing on the NHL in the end,” Milstein said. “This past season he was really concentrating on making sure he’d be ready. All about the hockey. No social media, didn’t watch NHL games, just spent his time trying to get better.”
It worked. Kuzmenko finished second in league scoring behind wire-to-wire runaway leader Vadim Shipachyov of Moscow Dynamo. The latter tallied 67 points, Kuzmenko notched 53, while 31-year-old Oliver, BC native and 52-game NHLer Corban Knight finished third in the KHL with 48.
“Andrei went off the grid this season, didn’t have meetings about where he’d go, he watched hundreds of hours of (NHL) games before really starting to talk to teams in May,” Milstein said. “He doesn’t care about the weather, like the cold in Edmonton, or the taxes in Vancouver, he’s only concerned about the team and the hockey. He worked at it and took his game to the next level.”
Kuzmenko has also been taking English lessons and can hold conversations on his own, according to Milstein.
The bonus for the organization that wins this little sweepstakes is the fact Kuzmenko will cost around a million-bucks for a one-year entry-level deal. It’s a fortuitous one season performance wait-and-see.
Kuzmenko is not considered Kirill Kaprizov calibre at this point and likely won’t ever be, but by financial comparison, Kaprizov came over and joined the Minnesota Wild at age 23 and signed a two-year entry-level deal for $925,000 per season in 2019. He won the Calder Trophy as rookie-of-the year in 2020. He’s now entering the 2nd year of a five-year deal that pays him $9-million per season.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
“Until these guys get here and see who they play with and how that fit in and all of that, you really don’t know,” Rutherford said.
Milstein believes current Vancouver Canucks General Manager Patrik Allvin saw Kuzmenko play in person as a teenager as early as 2013. He thinks Edmonton Oilers GM Ken Holland has been monitoring the player for years since Holland was running the Detroit Red Wings.
Milstein, who also represents Vancouver Canucks prospect and 2nd-round draft pick from last summer Danila Klimovich, first heard about Kuzmenko from one of his other clients seven years ago.
“Nikita Kucherov told me during a pre-season tournament, ‘you gotta get over here and sign this guy, we could use him in Tampa’,” Milstein paraphrased.
If relationships matter, then the Canucks should have an edge. Current Vancouver forward Vasily Podkolzin played two full seasons with Kuzmenko in St. Pete’ as recently as the 2020-’21 season.
“He’s also buddies with a lot of other guys,” Milstein said, poo-poo’ing the concept, with a handful of former SKA teammates having hopped the pond. Defenceman Artem Zub is one; he’s played two seasons with the Ottawa Senators after playing two seasons with Kuzmenko. The Senators are a factor in this.
Winger Alexander Barabanov played 70 games for the San Jose Sharks last season after first coming over two seasons ago to join the Maple Leafs. New York Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin played 28 games with Kuzmenko four seasons ago.
Vladimir Tkachev, who coincided with Podkolzin with SKA, is now in the Los Angeles Kings organization and played four games with the big club this last campaign.
Oddly enough, two of Kuzmenko’s North American ‘import’ teammates the last two seasons are winger Linden Vey and defenceman Oscar Fantenberg, both former Vancouver Canucks.
In this case, Kontinental and karma both start with a K.