The Journey: Projecting Andrei Kuzmenko (2022)

Welcome back to The Journey, where we follow hockey prospects and their paths to the NHL, providing fantasy predictions and analysis along the way.

First off, my name is Curtis Rines. I run the Nashville Predators team page for DobberProspects, and I will be filling in for Ben while he is away on vacation! I am super excited to have the chance to run this column for the next three weeks, and I hope you all enjoy the content.

To start my tenure, I will be looking at recent free-agent signing Andrei Kuzmenko and how the newest Canucks player stacks up against some of the more notable KHL forwards that have made a move to the NHL.

Before we get into comparables, who is Andrei Kuzmenko?

The 26-year-old Russian winger comes over from SKA St. Petersburg in the KHL with 315 games of experience under his belt. Across those games, he scored 85 goals and 200 points.

This past year, Kuzmenko had his best year in Russia by far. With 53 points in 45 games played, he was second in the league in points behind only Vadim Shipachyov. His 1.18 points per game rate surpassed his previous best, 0.67, by a wide margin.

Andrei Kuzmenko is an intriguing signing for the Canucks. His most productive work in the KHL (the last 4 years) came a bit later than you'd want to see. But Kuzmenko also showed early signs that there was something there (probably should have been drafted in first eligible year)

— Byron Bader (@ByronMBader) June 20, 2022

So as you can see, his production in 2021-22 was no joke. According to our prospect analytics king, Mason Black, Kuzmenko's NHLe jumped from 31.0 to 57.0.

Besides being able to post points, Kuzmenko's skill set is desirable in a variety of ways. His elusive skating makes him a threat in all facets of the offensive game. He can blow by opponents on the rush or kill them in the cycle with his ability to maneuver in tight spaces under pressure.

ICYMI: #Canucks Andrei Kuzmenko did damage this past season by combining punch turns and spin-off moves, effectively baiting defenders closer, only to launch into wraps and crease crashing attacks.

More video analysis in the link below:

— Daniel Gee (@DanielGScouting) June 21, 2022
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Mixing in his skating with his top-end hockey sense and puck skills, he becomes a potentially very dangerous winger for the Canucks. He can make plays at rapid speeds, which the new Canucks regime will love more than anything.

Kuzmenko's defensive game has a lot of question marks which transforms this entire signing into a boom-or-bust. Can he play anywhere in your top nine? No doubt. Can he be placed in a checking-type role? That becomes harder to answer. He will compliment any centermen you put him with, but if Kuzmenko gets stapled to a third line which is used as a shutdown option, I think his potential drastically decreases.

Although the future of the Canucks forward core remains unknown due to the potential departures of J.T. Miller and Conor Garland, I see no reason as to why Kuzmenko will not start in the top-six. His fantasy upside will be based mainly on usage, and his leeway to start the year should expect to be quite large from Bruce Boudreau.

Place him beside any mix of Bo Horvat, Elias Pettersson (if he moves back to center), or maybe even J.T. Miller, and there should be success.

However, with all of his success in the KHL, what should Canucks fans expect from Kuzmenko in terms of production in the NHL?

Well, there are a few similar players that could at least give some sort of idea about that.

Artemi Panarin, W, New York Rangers

Is Andrei Kuzmenko the next Artemi Panarin? Absolutely not. But he is arguably the highest-profile KHL forward to come over to the NHL since Panarin.

(Video) 2023 Rookie of the Year Rankings

Since signing an NHL contract at the age of 23 (a fundamental difference between him and Kuzmenko that we will touch on), Panarin has been one of the league's premier wingers. With 569 points in 508 games, Panarin will go down as one of the best-undrafted players of all time.

As mentioned, the signing age is the one massive difference that makes Panarin stand out from Kuzmenko and many other Russian free agents that come to the league. In his age 23 season in the KHL, Panarin averaged 1.14 points per game, a feat that took Kuzmenko an extra three years to surpass.

To top it all off, Panarin's NHLe was 66.0 the year before entering the league; then, he decided to come overseas, light it up with Patrick Kane and win the Calder Trophy. Simply put, Canucks fans would love to see Kuzmenko reach these heights, but it should not be the expectation.

Four goals in four games means the #RGCL Rookie of the Week is Chicago Blackhawks forward Artemi Panarin.

— Rogers NHL LIVE (@RogersNHLLive) January 11, 2016

Ilya Mikheyev, LW, Toronto Maple Leafs

A much closer comparison for Kuzmenko is everybody's favourite soup lover, Ilya Mikheyev.

Mikheyev signed with the Maple Leafs after five years of playing in the KHL, averaging 0.54 points per game over 224 contests.

The two-way winger may not be the best stylistic comparison for Kuzmenko as he is much more potent defensively but doesn't hold the same offensive ceiling. However, production-wise it could be a lot closer to what Kuzmenko could look like, at least in his rookie year.

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In Mikheyev's 24-year-old year in the KHL he averaged 0.72 points per game in 62 games played while playing for Avangard Omsk. This is slightly better than Kuzmenko's 0.64 points per game in 57 games at the same age. Context does matter though and that is not fully available to see who played how much but it is a comparison worth noting.

This past season while playing a middle-six role in Toronto, Mikheyev scored 21 goals and 32 points in 53 games. Nothing ground-breaking but he is definitely a contributor considering he can play in all situations.

Ilya Mikheyev going pressure kill mode

— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) May 7, 2022

So considering Mikheyev did something like that while being paired a majority of his time beside defensive stalwart David Kampf, things look much brighter in terms of opportunity for Kuzmenko.

Mikheyev has had opportunities in the top-six previously but does not possess a good enough hockey sense and puck skills in the offensive zone to mesh well with Toronto's highly skilled top-four forwards. Whereas I could easily see Kuzmenko slotting in quite well beside someone such as Bo Horvat or J.T. Miller as previously mentioned.

So this starts to narrow down Kuzmenko's upside even more. He more than likely will not reach the heights of Panarin, but he should hold more fantasy value than the 45–50-point winger that Ilya Mikheyev is.

Are we done yet? No. After one more comparison, I think it will be a lot easier to narrow down Kuzmenko's outlook heading into 22-23.

Alexander Barabanov, LW, San Jose Sharks

The final player we will take a look at on this list is another Leafs' free-agent signing who now plays for the Sharks, Alex Barabanov. The 5-10, 194-pound winger struggled to get in the lineup under Sheldon Keefe when he was with the Leafs but has seemed to found a spot in California.

In 79 games with the Sharks, (close to an 82-game sample), Barabanov has produced 46 points with 13 of those being goals. While not the same level goal-scorer as Mikheyev he has found ways to produce in a much less talented lineup than the Leafs.

(Video) Locked On Crossover: Vancouver Canucks 2022-23 Season Preview with Locked On Fantasy Hockey

Alex Barabanov scores on the power play 💪

— Sharks on NBCS (@NBCSSharks) November 14, 2021

Out of the four Russians on this list, Barabnov was definitely the least noteworthy when he signed in the NHL. His 0.52 points per game across 262 KHL games ranks fourth out of himself, Kuzmenko, Mikheyev, and Panarin. Not that he wasn't a great player over in Russia, just he wasn't expected to do as much.

Barabanov is very similar to Mikheyev in the way he plays and his constant battle for the puck. Kuzmenko can do the same as both but with more skill at the same time. All three of these wingers can work well in tight areas but Kuzmenko can simply make more opportunities out of it.

Barabanov will top off as a 40-point winger in the right scenario. Less than Mikheyev but still a good player in the league. As he signed at age 26, it makes him a closer comparable to Kuzmenko in that regard but he still never had a season that resembled anything close to what went on in the KHL this past year.

So after looking at all three of these players in comparison to Kuzmenko, one thing is obvious. There is no true "good" comparable in terms of age and production that can give us a truly clear idea of what his fantasy upside may be.

Panarin is in a league of his own. Mikheyev was younger at the age of signing and possesses a much different skill set. Barabanov is a good age comparison but never had that same KHL success.

Kuzmenko is a great offensive player who should have a 60-point upside if he can "boom" with the Canucks. Mikheyev settling in around that 45–50-point mark when healthy makes it a pretty confident bet to say Kuzmenko could do better than that.

If I am Bruce Boudreau, I place Kuzmenko immediately in my top-six with power-play time on top of that. Give him every opportunity possible to settle into the league with skilled players around him. Considering familiarity with fellow Canuck, Vasili Podkolzin, there should be some intrigue in partnering those two together on opposite wings as well.

No matter what, Kuzmenko chose a great destination in western Canada, and with the way General Manager Patrik Allvin and his staff are going, they understand the potential Kuzmenko possesses.

To fantasy managers, keep an eye on him all through training camp. Pre-season lines will be a big indication of how Boudreau sees him and what role he thinks will suit him best. He does not hold much multi-category value but definitely add him to your list of potential sleepers in points-only.

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The off-season has only just begun, so make sure you stay tuned over the next couple of weeks for prospect analysis on both the draft and free agency moves.

Thanks for reading! Follow me on Twitter @curtis_rines for more hockey and prospect content.


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