Inside the Canucks’ successful pursuit of Andrei Kuzmenko

Andrei Kuzmenko couldn’t wait.

Fresh off of a whirlwind recruiting tour across North America, Kuzmenko returned to Moscow. He’d been to such iconic, far-flung locales as South Beach, Ann Arbor, Vancouver and the Joey’s in downtown Edmonton.

It was a dizzying journey. The original plan laid out by Kuzmenko’s representatives called for the skilled 26-year-old Russian winger to wait until midweek before making his decision — to settle in, digest what he’d seen and been told, and process his options with his family before deciding which NHL team to commit to.

Kuzmenko’s mind was made up though. He didn’t need to wait, or indulge in any further sober reflection.

The Vancouver Canucks were feeling confident following Kuzmenko’s weekend visit. General manager Patrik Allvin — who had tracked the player closely for the better part of a decade — had flown into Vancouver to play host to Kuzmenko’s camp. In typical Canucks style, Kuzmenko and his agents were wined and dined at a variety of TopTable fixtures, including Blue Water Cafe and Elisa.

Ownership was involved in the process, although chairman Francesco Aquilini was out of town during Kuzmenko’s visit.

By Saturday evening, the club believed they’d landed their man.

On Sunday, Kuzmenko’s representatives knew the outcome, and on Monday morning, Kuzmenko notified the world in an Instagram post that he was taking his talents to False Creek and committing to sign with the Canucks.

The accelerated pace of Kuzmenko’s decision reflected the strong impression that Vancouver had made on the top European free agent.

And in truth, it reflected the extent to which Kuzmenko’s mind had already been made up in the final week of the process.

While Kuzmenko continued on to final interviews with several remaining clubs, the Canucks had laid the ground work, paving the way for Kuzmenko’s urgency, the prior week during a meeting in Ann Arbor, Mich.

At that meeting, attended by Canucks head coach Bruce Boudreau, who drove nearly seven hours from his offseason home near Hershey, Pa., and Allvin, who drove nearly four hours from Pittsburgh, the Canucks laid out their plan for Kuzmenko.

Despite industry rumors that Kuzmenko’s camp was seeking a guarantee of games played, a top-six role, power-play opportunity and details on what the framework of an extension beyond next season might look like, multiple sources familiar with insisted to The Athletic on Monday that no guarantees were made.

That might stretch the bounds of credulity, considering how laden with falsehoods the recruiting process can be across professional sports, but in truth, the lack of guarantees is in line with a hard stance that the Canucks held firm to during their ultimately fruitless pursuit of several top NCAA free agents this past spring as well. Allvin, who ran point in many of those recruitment meetings in April and May, was steadfast in his refusal to make roster spot promises or guarantee ice time.

It’s believed to have cost the club, in at least one instance.

On that fateful mid-June Friday in Michigan, however, the club’s honesty wasn’t a setback. It helped, perhaps, that Boudreau and Allvin, earnest in their belief that Kuzmenko’s playmaking will be a power-play weapon right off the hop at the NHL level, laid out a path for Kuzmenko to make an impact in his first season. Allvin also focused on how Kuzmenko could fit into the club’s long-term plans, provided he earned a spot and made an impact, beyond next season.

The impressions that Boudreau and Allvin made were ultimately determine for Kuzmenko and his camp on shepherding him into a commitment with the Canucks. There’s a particular familiarity between Allvin and Kuzmenko, one source close to the negotiation described them as having “a good connection,” dating back years to when Allvin was with the Pittsburgh Penguins organization.

From day one of this process, when nearly two-thirds of NHL teams were jockeying in pursuit of the skilled playmaking winger, the Canucks were high on Kuzmenko’s list of teams to consider. That’s in part because the player knew that Allvin believed in and trusted his skill.

“Andrei felt right about Vancouver,” a source close to the player told The Athletic.

By the time the Ann Arbor meeting concluded, Kuzmenko was sold on joining the Canucks organization. He still intended to honor commitments made to other finalists, but from that point on, the Canucks were no longer prohibitive favorites but were firmly in the driver’s seat to land the player.

There are still hurdles to clear. While Kuzmenko is committed to Vancouver and will sign officially with the club when the market opens on July 13, the contract isn’t yet signed.

Kuzmenko is only eligible to sign a one-year agreement entry-level contract, which means the final terms of his is paint by numbers, although There’s new and modestly elevated thresholds.

Kuzmenko will surely get a max annual average value ($950k), a standard $95,000 signing bonus, and potentially max Schedule A performance bonuses ($1 million) or close to it. Neither side of the negotiation would comment on whether Schedule B bonuses might be included in the deal or a sticking point in negotiations, but those bonuses can total an additional $2.5 million if they’re maxed out.

Maximum Schedule B bonuses are very rare for European free agents. They tend to be reserved for first overall picks, star NCAA players with August 15 leverage or high pedigree draft picks who absolutely lay waste to their respective major junior, college or professional leagues. Artemi Panarin’s two-year, entry-level deal with the Chicago Blackhawks included a nearly maximum slate of Schedule B bonuses when he signed with Chicago in 2015, however, so while they’re unlikely to factor into these talks, they’re not entirely unheard of.

The deal, however, is a formality at this stage. Kuzmenko is committed to the Canucks; the Canucks are committed to the player.

On the day that Allvin was introduced in Vancouver he vowed that recruiting NCAA and European free agents would be a major plan of his strategy. That these unconventional fishing holes would offer the club a path toward replenishing their depth of talent.

On Monday, as Kuzmenko posed for a photograph signing a prop piece of paper while wearing a No. 96 Canucks jersey, Allvin had delivered — both on his vow, and the top European free agent this offseason.

(Photo: Maksim Konstantinov / SOPA Image / Sipa USA)

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