Canucks: Coveted free-agent Andrei Kuzmenko to sign in Vancouver

Kuzmenko’s ability to keep pace and execute with skilled linemates will bring an added dimension. Those who have closely monitored the Russian call him “an incredible passer” and “very smart.”

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The picture was worth 1,000 words.

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There was free agent Andrei Kuzmenko on his Instagram account Monday. With pen in hand, and clad in a Vancouver Canucks jersey with the number 96 that countryman Pavel Bure once wore here, he was poised over paper to take his next career step.

All the Continental Hockey League veteran has to do is sign on the dotted line — once contract details are reached because he can’t technically sign until July 13 because he’s a European player who didn’t since by June 1 — to make it official that the Canucks had successfully ended their long pursuit of the highly coped winger.

Kuzmenko is expected to pocket $US855,000 in base salary, a $95,000 signing bonus, $80,000 if in the minors and $850,000 in Performance A bonuses.

“I have been watching Andrei since his 2014-15 season and have been impressed with his development and improvement,” Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin said in a statement. “Once the contract details are finalized, we look forward to helping him continue to grow as a hockey player.”

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There was a wow factor when Allvin first saw Kuzmenko. At the time, he was the director of European scouting for the Pittsburgh Penguins. The winger obviously made the right impression because he has been on NHL radars for years and a target of many clubs. Kuzmenko was just as impressed by where the Canucks are hopefully headed.

“We were impressed by what the Canucks organization wants to accomplish and the winning culture they are building,” said Kuzmenko’s agent Dan Milstein. “Andrei felt a good connection with the management team and is looking forward to playing for Bruce Boudreau.”

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Kuzmenko plays the left side, but shoots right. That alone brings up several tantalizing roster options and curiosity of where the Canucks are headed in pricey contract extensions for JT Miller and Brock Boeser.

Will the we’d-like-to-sign-him dynamic by Canucks’ management change if Miller’s camp continues to chase a $8-million US annual salary by using point-per-game comparables in the last three seasons? The Canucks leading scorer had better numbers than Mika Zibanejad and Thomas Hertl. Miller had 217 regular-season points, while Zibanejad had 206 and Hertl 143. Miller was also 15th in points per game this season with 1.24, while Zibanejad was 51st at 1.00 and Hertl was 115th at 0.78.

Zibanejad, 29, agreed to an eight-year, $68-million US deal with the New York Rangers on Oct. 10, 2021 — a mammoth leap from an expiring $5.35-million cap hit. And Hertl, 28, signed an eight-year, $65.1-million extension with the San Jose Sharks on March 16. His expiring cap hit this season was $5.625 million.

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Kuzmenko, 26, had 20 goals and 33 assists in 45 games for SKA St. Petersburg this past season. There’s little risk on what will eventually be a one-year, entry-level deal because with eight seasons in the KHL, he’s a known commodity and this is far from a reach.

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It’s why the Edmonton Oilers, Vegas Golden Knights, Carolina Hurricanes, and Nashville Predators were also wooing the 5-foot-11, 194-pound forward. But the Canucks went the extra miles to meet with Kuzmenko in Ann Arbor, Mich. He had to be impressed. It’s one thing to be offered top-six minutes and promised power-play time by several suitors. It’s something else when the brass hauls ass to meet you at your agent’s office.

The Canucks obviously need to add top-six players on palatable contracts, and Kuzmenko’s ability to keep pace and execute with skilled linemates will bring an added dimension. Those who have closely monitored Kuzmenko call him “an incredible passer” and “very smart.”

He also played three KHL seasons with Canucks winger Vasily Podkolzin, and not only will that bring a possible reunion on the same line, having a countryman on the bench and in the room is another bonus for comfort and camaraderie.

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Milstein recently told the Canucks Conversation podcast that wouldn’t be the deciding factor in where his client landed. But it’s not a stretch to suggest that some familiarity helps.

Russia's forward Andrei Kuzmenko celebrates a goal during the Channel One Cup of the Euro Hockey Tour ice hockey match between Russia and Sweden at CSKA Arena in Moscow on Dec.  17, 2020.
Russia’s forward Andrei Kuzmenko celebrates a goal during the Channel One Cup of the Euro Hockey Tour ice hockey match between Russia and Sweden at CSKA Arena in Moscow on Dec. 17, 2020. Photo by ALEXANDER NEMENOV /AFP via Getty Images

“The hockey business is fairly small, so everybody has played with everybody or against each other,” said Milstein. “When we look at coming to North America we don’t select the team just because of somebody you used to play with on that particular team. It isn’t a major focal point.”

However, what is a focal point is that Vancouver is now not considered as Plan B or C for free agents. The Canucks have been spurned before, but credit that remarkable 32-15-10 five-month run with Boudreau at the coaching helm — and young stars in Quinn Hughes and Elias Pettersson hitting higher performance levels — for being magnets to help draw top talent.

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Milstein knew the Canucks had serious interest in his client and a whirlwind visit to Vancouver late last weekend at posh dining spots and a tour of the city cemented the deal.

“We’ve been talking to Vancouver executives for a very long time,” said Milstein. “It’s a great city, very passionate fans, a good place to play, a good team, good coaching and stable management. Fans in Vancouver should be excited for many years on what’s to come. Based on what I’ve heard, I’m excited.

“I expect (Kuzmenko) to be a top-six forward, he can play on the power play. He’s very strong, he’s a hard worker, he plays on both sides of the ice and we expect him to make an impact from early on.”

Kuzmenko became a free agent when his four-year deal with SKA concluded. He broke into the KHL with CSKA Moscow in 2014-15 as an 18-year-old after coming up through their junior system.

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— with a file from Patrick Johnston

bkuzma@postmedia.com
twitter.com/@benkuzma

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