It’s little wonder Andrei Kuzmenko captured the hearts of Vancouver Canucks fans so quickly.
In a season marked by loss and frustration, the Russian forward with the dimpled grin, gravity defying hair and enthusiastic goal celebrations has been a rare bright spot both on and off the ice.
And after signing a two-year extension, that bright spot is sticking around.
“I am happy in Vancouver. Why not sign to two years? I think is a good deal for two sides,” Kuzmenko said Friday.
The deal carries an average-annual value of US$5.5 million.
The 26-year-old left-winger said he left all negotiations up to his agent, Dan Millstein.
“Yesterday, my agent calls me. ‘Andrei, let’s go.’ I say ‘OK, no problem. I trust you. Is not my work, is your work. I am just hockey player,’” Kuzmenko said, flashing his wide smile.
The five-foot-11, 194-pound forward has been a standout for the Canucks (19-26-3) this season, his first in the NHL, finding chemistry on a line with star centre Elias Pettersson. In 47 games, Kuzmenko has registered 21 goals and 22 assists.
He was tied with defenceman Quinn Hughes for third on the team in scoring heading into a Friday night matchup with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
“He’s very offensively talented, he’s got a lot of skill, he makes plays,” Pettersson said. “And obviously we thrive off each other.”
A native of Yakutsk, Russia, Kuzmenko spent his first eight professional seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) with CSKA Moscow and SKA St. Petersburg, registering 200 points (85-115-200) in 315 regular season games. He set career-highs in goals (20), assists (33), and points (53) last season, ranking second in the league in scoring.
It was evident in training camp that the new addition had a lot to offer the Canucks, said captain Bo Horvat.
“You could tell right from the beginning that he had a lot of skill,” Horvat said. “Whether it translated to the NHL or not, it was going to be up to him. And he obviously handled it the right way.
“Him and Petey have really good chemistry and have played really well together. And they need to continue that for the rest of the season, for sure.”
Kuzmenko leads all first-year NHLers in almost every offensive category, including goals, assists, points, points per game (0.91), power-play goals, and power-play points.
He has also produced 14 multi-point games so far this season (second-most on the Canucks), highlighted by his first NHL hat-trick and season-high four-point game against Anaheim on Nov. 3.
While he’s impressed on the scoresheet there’s room for Kuzmenko’s game to grow, said Vancouver’s newly minted head coach Rick Tocchet.
“He’s a very skilled guy … he can score. We’re excited that we have him,” said Tocchet, noting that coaches will continue to work with the Russian forward on his habits and defensive game.
“There’s work to do with him to be a complete player but the one thing is he can score. And we’re excited about that.”
At least one teammate believes Kuzmenko has room for improvement off the ice, too. Asked what he thinks of the Russian’s long, wild hair, Horvat was blunt.
“It’s terrible,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of comments saying now he can afford a haircut. He’s got to do something with it because it’s getting out of hand.”
The critique is nothing new to Kuzmenko.
“A lot of people say ‘Please change haircut.’ I know, I know,” he said. “Maybe after season. Why not?”
—Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press