After making cameo appearances in both the 2020–21 and 2021–22 regular seasons, towering defenceman Yan Kuznetsov has finally emerged as an American Hockey League regular.

No, Kuznetsov isn’t that much older than Jeremie Poirier, who only made his AHL debut with the Calgary Wranglers this season. The Flames selected the two defenders with back-to-back picks at the 2020 NHL Draft.

But it feels like Kuznetsov’s been around the block and back already, having turned pro with the Stockton Heat at the end of only his second NCAA season (and less than six months after he was drafted).

Kuznetsov, 20, started the 2021–22 campaign in Stockton, appearing in 12 games over the first two months of the season before being assigned to the QMJHL’s Saint John Sea Dogs.

There, the 6’4″ defenceman joined Poirier on a stacked Sea Dogs team that won 46 of 68 games before capturing the Memorial Cup as the hosts (albeit with a sour QMJHL playoff finish tucked in between).

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Kuznetsov has taken a winding road toward becoming a full-time AHLer. Whereas Poirier played exclusively with Saint John in his first two seasons after being drafted, Kuznetsov was all over the map:

2020–21

Team Russia, 2021 WJC (Edmonton, AB) – 7 GP
University of Connecticut, NCAA (Storrs, CT) – 16 GP
Stockton Heat, AHL (Calgary, AB) – 6 GP

2021–22

Stockton Heat, AHL (Stockton, CA) – 12 GP
Saint John Sea Dogs, QMJHL (Saint John, NB) – 29 GP
Saint John Sea Dogs, Memorial Cup (Saint John, NB) – 4 GP

In total, that’s 74 games with four different teams over two seasons in five different home municipalities. Naturally, Kuznetsov capped all that off by reaching the pinnacle of success in Canadian junior hockey.

While, in theory, his frame makes him a prototypical NHL defensive prospect, Kuznetsov is more of a unique case. He’s not nearly as physical as many of his similar-sized counterparts, he generally avoids taking penalties, and he’s never scored much at any level.

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Since the start of the 2018–19 season, Kuznetsov has recorded 44 points in 149 games split between the USHL, NCAA, QMJHL, and AHL. Only seven of those points have been goals.

Even as a 19-year-old in Canada’s highest-scoring junior league, Kuznetsov finished slightly above half a point per game. He doesn’t shoot the puck all that much, having managed 43 shots in 50 NCAA games and (to this point) 32 in 32 AHL contests. It took him 32 games to score his first goal in the AHL.

Kuznetsov finally found the back of the net for the first time in his professional career late in the third period of Tuesday’s 5–3 win over the Coachella Valley Firebirds.

The big man unleashed a terrifying blast from the left point that zoomed past Firebirds goaltender Joey Daccord to give the Wranglers a one-goal lead with just 3:47 left in regulation time.

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Kuznetsov entered Tuesday’s contest with two points in his first 31 AHL games. He picked up a goal and two helpers against Coachella Valley to increase his career point total by 150 percent.

For his efforts, Kuznetsov was named the game’s third star.

“Definitely nice to get the first one, it took me over 30 games,” Kuznetsov said with a chuckle after the win. “Definitely a good feeling but, more importantly, we won the game.

“We wanted to prove that we’re not the same team we were a month ago,” Kuznetsov added, referencing the Wranglers’ back-to-back losses against Coachella Valley to start the season. “We play really structurally sound, I think, and everyone’s just working their asses off.”

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It’s easy to forget Kuznetsov still isn’t even old enough to legally drink in the United States. He’s been ahead of the curve for years, having played a full season of NCAA hockey as a 17-year-old before getting his first taste of the pro game less than a month after his 19th birthday.

The Flames saw enough from Kuznetsov in his freshman year at UConn to justify selecting him with their 2020 second-round draft choice. These days, he’s spending most of his time on a pairing with Nicolas Meloche at even strength while continuing to adapt to the AHL game.

“He’s battled through a lot in his rookie year,” Wranglers assistant coach Don Nachbaur said after Tuesday’s game. “These young guys go through phases where they play real well and then they have off games. Tonight, he stepped up with a huge goal.

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“It’s the same with Poirier and [Ilya Solovyov], the young D. To play in the National Hockey League you’ve got to take care of your own end first, and that requires good sticks, good bodies, killing plays,” Nachbaur continued. “And, when they touch pucks, making strong plays.”

It’s rare, but not unprecedented, for a prospect to turn into a legitimate contributor at the NHL level without first being a consistent scoring threat at a lower level. Even the league’s top defensive defencemen typically start out as offensive contributors in junior or collegiate ranks.

Of course, there are exceptions. If Kuznetsov is to become an impactful shutdown player with the Flames, he’ll likely have to emulate the likes of Niklas Hjalmarsson and Jonas Siegenthaler (neither of whom scored much before reaching the NHL) instead of Adam Pelech and Marc-Edouard Vlasic (both of whom had big offensive seasons in junior).

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Aside from picks No. 2 and 3 in the 1999 NHL Draft, no two prospects are the same. Player development is hardly a linear process and some guys are better suited to the NHL than the AHL. Kuznetsov could be one of those individuals.

Nevertheless, it’ll be a couple more years (at least) before Kuznetsov sees the NHL. There’s a chance Poirier could already be a regular with the Flames by the time Kuznetsov plays his first NHL game. They’re two very different players.

The Flames’ defensive prospect pool isn’t particularly deep. For better or worse, Poirier and Kuznetsov are by far the two best Flames prospects at the position. After the two Memorial Cup winners, there isn’t a whole lot in the pipeline.

Kuznetsov is easy to spot — did we mention he’s really tall? — but the value he provides on the ice isn’t always apparent. He still needs to make significant improvements at both ends of the ice before he’s due for a call-up, let alone a full-time NHL gig.

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It’s worth keeping an eye on him.