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What should the Calgary Flames do with Andrei Kuzmenko?

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Photo credit:Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
Raz Devraj
1 month ago
It’s been a little over two months since the Calgary Flames acquired forward Andrei Kuzmenko from the Vancouver Canucks as part of a deal that sent Elias Lindholm back the other way. 
His short time as a Flame so far has been anything but disappointing, and he has been an offensive juggernaut who has regained his goal-scoring touch, collecting 14 goals and 24 points through 27 games played. Kuzmenko has been on a heater recently putting up 15 points in his last nine games. 
Is it a surprise that a former 39-goal scorer is putting the puck in the back of the net? He is doing what he is good at, which is scoring goals. The production level Kuzmenko had in his first year in the NHL as a Canuck was ridiculous. He had 39 goals and 74 points through 81 games played. To be one goal shy of 40 in your first season in the NHL is remarkable and something that deserves a lot of acclaim. 
The problem is that Kuzmenko is one-dimensional; aside from offensive production and his skill around the net and in the offensive zone, there are a lot of weak areas in his game. He’s a player you would love on your power play, or as a net-front presence, but as soon as it comes to back-checking, being positioned well in the defensive zone, or even making a smart safe play out of the zone he’s not someone who can be relied on and we saw how that worked out for him under Rick Tocchet in Vancouver where he runs a system that prioritizes defence and taking care of your own zone first. 
Throughout this season both as a Canuck and a Flame only 5.5% of Kuzmenko’s shifts have started in the defensive zone. No other Flames forward has a lower percentage of shifts started in the defensive zone. It’s clear that both Tocchet and Ryan Huska wanted to limit his play in the defensive zone. Another interesting stat to point out about when Kuzmenko is put on the ice is that 65.6% of his shifts start on the fly, which makes total sense considering that a breakout is most likely about to happen and there is more time and space for him to create something and make those nifty moves he loves on the rush. Another thing about Kuzmenko is that he loves to hang onto the puck a lot and sometimes he does too much where he ends up getting caught or he has to force a play that results in turnovers.   
The shooting percentage numbers throughout Kuzmenko’s short NHL career are also interesting. Last season he had a shooting percentage of 27.3%. Everyone knows that is a hard number to sustain and as expected it dropped. With the Canucks this season it dropped to 12.7%, but since joining the Flames it has shot up to 26.4%. The thing about shooting percentage is that it is going to fluctuate, but it’s evident that consistency is a little bit of a problem and some of that has to do with puck luck.
When Kuzmenko’s percentage is above 20% things are great and he’s scoring goals which makes it easier to overlook the other deficiencies in his game. Once that number starts to drop, and he’s unable to find the back of the net as easily, fewer goals are scored and now you have a guy who has always struggled defensively start to struggle offensively and that becomes a big problem for a coach and that’s what ultimately caused Vancouver to move on from him. 
This is not to say Kuzmenko is a bad player by any means because that is clearly not the case, but as a one-dimensional player once you start to find trouble in that one area you thrive in, you stop contributing positively and you become a liability on the ice. Sometimes it’s a matter of players not working with certain coaches and because he couldn’t get on the same page as Tocchet on his game away from the puck, his confidence with the puck started to fade, and ultimately he wasn’t doing any good on the ice which is what led to him getting scratched.
He flourished under Bruce Boudreau, a coach who had a different approach to the game, a system that was more relaxed on the defensive side of things. Here in Calgary with a team that looks like they have finally committed to a rebuild and a team that is out of the playoffs, Kuzmenko isn’t getting punished for his lack of defensive awareness like he was under Tocchet, being scratched on a regular basis. Even with the production Kuzmenko has had, he also has a minus-9 which indicates that more goals are scored against the Flames than for the Flames when he is on the ice at even strength. 
Defence, consistency, and all other things considered, there is no doubt that Kuzmenko is an NHL talent, for almost two seasons he has proved that he can score which ultimately is the most important aspect of hockey so it begs the question, where does his future lie with the Flames?
The first thing to look at would be how the Canucks handled this situation. While it looks like they made a mistake in re-signing the Russian winger for $11 million over two years it’s a bit more complicated than that. Signing Kuzmenko wasn’t the problem, signing him for a $5.5 million AAV was. Putting that much faith in a player who only had one NHL season to their name is a pretty big gamble. Although the Canucks over-paid to re-sign Kuzmenko, at the time they made the right decision because how can you justify letting a 39-goal scorer go?
The Flames and Canucks are on two totally different trajectories. One is starting to enter the rebuilding phase while the other is on its way to the Stanley Cup playoffs with hopes of becoming a consistent playoff team for the foreseeable future. Knowing how re-signing Kuzmenko panned out for the Canucks, the Flames have the advantage in already seeing what could potentially happen to Kuzmenko again if they decide to keep him and perhaps extend him. 
There is no good or bad decision because each decision has its pros and cons but what it comes down to for the Flames is that they are in rebuild mode, and what is the most important aspect of a rebuild? That’s right, it’s the acquisition of young talent and prospects. How does a team help themselves in that department? Well, a lot of it has to do with obtaining as much draft capital as possible. Kuzmenko finishing off the season with a bang gives the Flames the perfect opportunity to sell high on him during the offseason. What makes this situation even better for Craig Conroy is the fact that Kuzmenko only has one year left on his current deal which will make it easier for him to find Kuzmenko a new home. 
There isn’t much history to compare to but considering we have seen how Kuzmenko plays under Huska it’s less likely the same amount of regression will hit him as it did in Vancouver because he won’t be walking into new systems and a new coach as he did in Vancouver. If moving him in the off-season doesn’t work out there will be another opportunity to ship him out before the 2025 trade deadline and acquire some draft picks because a lot more teams are going to be interested in adding a player who can score goals during a playoff push while also not needing to worry about the long term implications Kuzmenko’s salary would bring. 
This is one of many complex decisions Craig Conroy will have to make as he guides the Flames through this rebuild, but for now, it’s time for Kuzmenko’s homecoming as he visits his former team tonight in Vancouver for the Flames’ last road game of the 2023-24 season.
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