Andrei Kuzmenko quickly went from zero to hero in his trial run with the Flames in 2023-24

Photo credit:Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
Mike Gould
1 month ago
We’re back for another entry in our 2023-24 Season in Review series here at FlamesNation.
After Jeff Middleton kicked things off with a look at Jonathan Huberdeau’s season earlier this week, it’s high time for a bit of a palate cleanser — and who better to liven the mood than our new friend Andrei Kuzmenko?

The past

By the time Kuzmenko made his National Hockey League debut with the Vancouver Canucks at the start of the 2022-23 season, he was already too old to be eligible for the Calder Memorial Trophy. That’s because the Russian winger had previously spent more than half a decade plying his trade in the KHL before coming to North America.
The undrafted Kuzmenko gradually rose through the ranks in the CSKA Moscow system before emerging as a full-fledged KHL star after joining SKA St. Petersburg in 2018. Kuzmenko spent four seasons with SKA, eventually attracting the attention of NHL scouts after finishing second in KHL scoring with 53 points in 45 games during the 2021-22 season.
After being courted by both the Canucks and the Edmonton Oilers, Kuzmenko elected to sign a one-year contract with Vancouver to begin his NHL career. It proved to be a worthwhile gamble for the Canucks: Kuzmenko rocketed out of the gate with 39 goals and 74 points in his first NHL season.
The Canucks quickly signed Kuzmenko to a two-year extension, which took effect in 2023-24. But he struggled to live up to his $5.5 million cap hit during his second season in Vancouver, racking up just eight goals and 21 points through 43 games before being sent to the Flames on January 31 as part of the package for Elias Lindholm.

The present

Although Canucks head coach Rick Tocchet had made Kuzmenko a healthy scratch a few times in the weeks leading up to the trade, Kuzmenko missed some time at the very beginning of his Flames tenure for a variety of other reasons. The 28-year-old forward sat out a handful of games due to an illness and an upper-body injury at the end of February and into the middle of March, although he was reasonably productive when he did play.
Once Kuzmenko returned to the Flames’ lineup for good in the back half of March, he started to rake on a consistent basis. He scored twice against the St. Louis Blues on Mar. 28, added two more in a loss to the Anaheim Ducks on April 2, and notched the overtime winner against the San Jose Sharks on Apr. 9. Then, for good measure, he tacked on his second career hat trick against the Ducks on Apr. 12.
Over a nine-game stretch between Mar. 28 and Apr. 14, Kuzmenko racked up nine goals and 16 points. He also seemingly single-handedly rejuvenated the Flames’ power play, which clicked at a staggering 27.1 percent rate (the fifth-best in the league) from the beginning of March to the end of the season.
Kuzmenko showed himself to be a rare offensive talent who is capable of making defenders look silly while he dances through the offensive zone. Sure, his heater pretty much directly coincided with the Flames being eliminated from the playoff race, but it’s not like he was scoring at the expense of the team’s other responsibilities. With Kuzmenko on the ice at 5-on-5, the Flames generated 76 high-danger scoring chances to their opponents’ 62. Only Daniil Miromanov, Martin Pospisil, and Blake Coleman fared better in that particular category last season among the Flames players with at least 300 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time.
It was all pretty convincing. The Flames collectively shot 9.04 percent with Kuzmenko on the ice at evens. That’s somewhat high, but certainly not egregiously so. Individually, Kuzmenko scored on 24.1 percent of his shots as a Flame, which is definitely high — but then again, not as high as the 27.3 percent he managed over all of the 2022-23 season. Even in his underwhelming 43 games with the Canucks to begin the 2023-24 season, Kuzmenko shot a healthy 12.7 percent.
It’s clear from watching Kuzmenko do what he does that he’s a player who possesses the natural ability to finish his chances. Practically nobody in the NHL is capable of scoring on 20 percent of his shots over a sustained period of time … but it’s entirely possible that Kuzmenko settles in around the 15-17 percent range with a few more seasons in the bank. There’s a lot to like here.

The future

This is where things get tough.
It wasn’t long ago that Kuzmenko was considered a cap dump in Vancouver. The Canucks were more than willing to part with the Russian winger to get Elias Lindholm back in January.
It’s not that Kuzmenko was bad in his second year with the Canucks, but it quickly became apparent that Rick Tocchet didn’t have the same patience for him that Bruce Boudreau once did. Tocchet’s teams typically play a rigid system that sacrifices all-out offence for responsibility and structure. Kuzmenko’s free-wheeling offensive style didn’t exactly jive with all that.
Plus, Kuzmenko is slated to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2024–25 season. He and his agent, Dan Milstein, will undoubtedly be looking for a big raise if he continues to produce at or near the 0.82 points-per-game rate he managed over his 29 games with the Flames. Over a full 82-game season, that translates to 71 points.
It tracks that the Flames might want to re-sign Yegor Sharangovich, who is more than two years younger than Kuzmenko. There’s a decent chance Sharangovich will still be in Calgary when the Flames return to the playoffs. But Kuzmenko will be 29 when his next contract starts and has only been in the NHL half as long as Sharangovich. Kuzmenko is an older player and less of a known quantity, even if he’s been more productive at points.
The Flames are firmly in a retooling period. They’ll likely look to move Jacob Markstrom this summer, and other players could join him on the block. It’s likely Kuzmenko’s value has increased since he arrived in Calgary, but it’s difficult to ascertain whether there’d be much of a market for a player who cratered so recently.
Fair or not, Kuzmenko has yet to prove he can be a positive contributor on a playoff team. He scored a ton on the Canucks in a non-playoff year, immediately fell off once the team turned a corner, and then started scoring again once he got to this year’s Flames. Until he proves his style of play is compatible with a contender, Kuzmenko’s trade value will likely always be limited.
In that case, is it worth it to move Kuzmenko for what might only be a third-round pick? If the Flames could get another first-rounder for Kuzmenko, they’d probably do it tomorrow. That might be easier said than done.
Giving Kuzmenko a long-term extension wouldn’t be the best idea. It’d take him deep into his 30s, when players typically regress, and it wouldn’t necessarily mesh with the Flames’ stated desire to get younger. But what about a short-term deal? It’d give Flames fans someone to cheer for in some lean years while also giving Kuzmenko a chance to build a more substantial CV for himself. He might not have the strongest league-wide reputation now, but a few 60-point seasons in a row might change that.
The Flames aren’t short on cash. They have the flexibility to offer Kuzmenko two or three years at a big ticket, likely more than he could get anywhere else. They’d be wise to shy away from anything longer than that — and they shouldn’t ignore any trade offers — but it might be more worthwhile to prolong their arrangement with Kuzmenko rather than flipping him now for a middling return.
If they can sign Kuzmenko to a short-term extension, the Flames could elevate the Lindholm trade from a decisive win to a full-on fleecing. If not, they might as well take the best pick they can get at next year’s trade deadline.
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