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Canes emerge in Andrei Kuzmenko sweepstakes

Let’s have a look at KHL star winger Andrei Kuzmenko, who’s been linked to the Canes over the past week.

NHL: NHL Awards Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Even in the midst of a postseason run with lofty expectations, it’s never too early to start looking toward the future. I mean, I’m @FutureCanes after all — it’s what I do. And on that note, there was an interesting rumor that began circulating over the weekend that’s definitely worth having a look at.

In his latest 32 Thoughts intermission segment on Saturday night’s Rangers/Penguins broadcast, Elliotte Friedman reported that the Canes are among a group of five teams that have had a meeting with coveted KHL star winger Andrei Kuzmenko — a 26-year-old right-shot forward who’s looking to take his first crack at the NHL.

Throughout the season, there’s been a lot of buzz surrounding Kuzmenko and where he may end up. For a while, he was strongly being linked to the Ottawa Senators and, with my Ottawa connection being strong, this is a player that I’m already very familiar with. And let me just say — he’s a guy worth being excited about.

Who Is He?

A right-shot winger who’s listed at 5-foot-11 and 194 pounds, Kuzmenko has spent the past four seasons with KHL powerhouse SKA St. Petersburg, a team that has produced a lot of NHL talent over the years. SKA is a program that’s adopted a winning culture and has emerged as a storied club in Russia, and has done a nice job at developing its young players. The current alumni in the NHL include guys like Artemi Panarin, Vladimir Tarasenko, Alexander Barabanov, Artem Zub, Vladislav Gavrikov and Vasily Podkolzin.

Kuzmenko has been an important player for SKA since his arrival to the club in 2018, but really emerged as their true leader and top producer this past season. He scored a career-high 53 points in just 45 games, which led his team by a wide margin. His 20 goals placed him second on the team behind Anton Burdasov, and his 1.18 points-per-game paced his team ahead of former NHLers like Nikita Gusev and Canes legend Valentin Zykov. His 53 points placed him second in the KHL behind only Vadim Shipachyov.

Simply put — Kuzmenko is a very dynamic attacking threat. He can beat you in a variety of ways, and his bag of tricks can make any defender look silly. The first thing I noticed when I watched him was how light he is on his skates. He’s not the fastest player I’ve seen, but he’s super agile and moves like he’s floating. He can zig, zag and change directions on a dime, which helps him avoid contact and retain puck possession.

I also repeatedly noticed just how good he is at finding open space in the attacking zone when he doesn’t have the puck. He kind of just hangs around and then darts into an open area. His vision for finding a hole in the defense is elite. And when he finds that space, if his teammates can get him the puck, it usually results in a scoring chance. His release is lightning quick, and his wrist shot is accurate.

He’s a dangerous player when he looks to shoot, but ultimately he’s a pass-first player. His ability to distribute kind of reminds me of Teuvo Teravainen. He’s very patient with the puck, and can draw defenders out of position with his eyes. He does a lot of his damage from the half-wall or below the goal line, where he out-waits the defense and can sneak the puck into the tightest of spaces. He’s a guy that can do it all, and consistently creates chances for his line mates.

Analyzing The Tape

Like most skilled guys, Kuzmenko is a player that you have to watch to truly appreciate. So I decided to break down some of his film. In this first clip, his ability is on full display. He makes a gorgeous deke to pull the puck between the defender’s legs and blows by him, taking the puck to the net while being slashed. He then shows off his finishing ability, elevating the puck top-cheese over the goalie’s shoulder from right in close. It’s a goal you can watch on replay for hours and not get tired of.

This next goal is another thing of absolute beauty. His strong backchecking effort results in a steal thanks to his quick stick, and he darts the other way on a solo rush surrounded by four defenders. He uses a gorgeous “shake” move and cuts to the outside, walking around the defenseman like a pylon. At a tough angle, he fakes the shot and decides to opt for a wraparound, which he tucks in with ease. I mean, what a goal.

And finally, here’s an example of his ability to find open space in the offensive zone. Throughout the PP, he’s mostly just waiting around behind the net as an outlet. When his defenseman cocked up to shoot from the point, he just popped out in front of the net untouched, standing all alone in front of the goalie. He then showed off some great hand-eye with a phenomenal re-direction for the goal. Really well done.

The Obstacles Ahead Of Him

Despite obviously being an extremely skilled player and having top-level talent, there’ll always be uncertainty about if a guy like Kuzmenko can translate his game to being an effective NHL player. At age 26, he’s now graduated prospect status and will come to North America for the first time as a guy with no experience playing outside of Russia. A language barrier, a change in culture and starting a whole new life are all considerable factors on top of a totally different brand of hockey.

Other KHL stars that came before him were unable to overcome all of those obstacles. On paper, he’s in a similar position as guys like Roman Cervenka, Vadim Shipachyov and Nikita Gusev, who also came to the NHL as fully developed players. These are guys that’ve spent years playing at the top level in Europe, and emerged as star players abroad. Understandably, they aren’t players that want to come to the AHL to learn and pay their dues. Kuzmenko will look for a team that’ll give him a shot to play and produce immediately — which I’m not convinced Carolina is in a position to offer.

The tricky thing for him will be adapting to the defensive side of NHL systems, and overcoming the severe jump in physicality. In the KHL, he’s shown a willingness to get to the front of net and isn’t afraid to attack the middle of the ice. He’s got exceptional puck skills and hockey sense, which can help him play himself out of danger. He’s also (at worst) an above average NHL skater, and would excel as a powerplay specialist.

All in all, I feel that Kuzmenko has all the tools to be an effective NHL forward. If his transition to North America goes smoothly, I could envision him being a 20-25 goal, 50-60 point guy who would probably plateau as a 2nd liner. The offensive package is there, but the challenge will be making the most of his skill set on smaller ice — which has been too tall a task for other guys at his skill level.

Final Thoughts

Regardless, I think this would be a no brainer of a signing for the Hurricanes. Kuzmenko is only eligible to sign a one-year entry-level contract — which would keep his 2022-23 cap hit at below $1 million — and would become an unrestricted free agent after the season.

All things considered, this signing would be totally risk free. If he doesn’t work out, you’re not committed to the player at all. If he lights it up and fits in with the group, you have the option of extending him long-term at a still youthful age of 27. Fingers crossed that the Canes can win the sweepstakes!