The frustrations with Andrei Kuzmenko’s game are not going away for Vancouver Canucks head coach Rick Tocchet.
“You’ve got to participate in certain parts of the game,” Tocchet said bluntly Friday.
The coach has been clear about how much more he believes Kuzmenko can do off the puck. It’s not just about the glaring mistakes — Kuzmenko lost Travis Dermott ahead of the Arizona defenceman scoring a goal Thursday and also made a brutal turnover in his own end in the same game — it’s about the smaller stuff too.
Like how he’s working, or not working really, in tandem with linemate Ilya Mikheyev.
“I think he’s trying to understand that but it’s very important … if Mikheyev’s forechecking he’s got to forecheck with him, because if Mikheyev forechecks and he stays back, (the opposition defence) makes a D to D pass and it’s an easy breakout,” the coach added.
“It’s a chain link thing, you have to participate. That doesn’t mean, you don’t have to hit a guy. I don’t care about that. I think there’s certain parts of his game (where) you have to participate. You know, you come back in your zone. We expect to be in the ‘rail’ — in the slot — and that’s your job to protect that part. You got to do it, like at least eight out of 10 times, not once in a while.”
Tocchet tried to couch his criticism, but it was clear where the point of his stick was mostly pointed. Kuzmenko, after all, is just about the only player this season who has been a healthy scratch and the coach’s frustrations have been the reason why he’s been sat out.
“And it’s just not him. I mean, everybody goes through their things. And I mean, I love him. He’s a great kid. He’s just, I know he’s struggling right now,” Tocchet said.
He said the coaches aren’t giving up, they’re going to keep working with him.
“In practice, same thing with work habits. You have to work. It’s the only way you’re gonna get out of it. You got to work. This league, it’s a tough League. You know, when you’re in a slump, you got to work your way out of it. You can’t just kind of think the puck’s gonna come to you in these spots,” he said.
Tocchet said Kuzmenko’s teammates have been trying to help him, but then highlighted something that suggests he’s concerned about Kuzmenko’s focus.
“We have a lot of good guys. They’ll go up to him and explain things … but you got to take initiative and it really starts in practice. Like if there’s a drill and you’re supposed to go this way, you got to do it that way. And you got to do it with pace and you know, sometimes it’s a hit or miss with him,” he said.
Kuzmenko had lots of success, but it’s a new season and things are very different, Tocchet underscored.
“We were a .500 team last year. We’re in a different area (now).”
The Canucks are sitting atop the entire league, far above a mediocre .500 record. Tocchet’s implication is the success is happening in spite of what Kuzmenko has or hasn’t been doing.
Kuzmenko hasn’t scored in nearly a month; he had two goals Dec. 23 versus San Jose, but hasn’t put the puck in the net since, despite plenty of power play time and often lots of five on five ice time too.
He is trying to create things with the puck and he hasn’t been shy to shoot — he had six shot attempts on Thursday versus Arizona — but you can’t help but think there’s a confidence issue now for the Russian, who signed a two-year $11 million contract extension just over a year ago.
“I gotta help the guy out too. I mean, obviously when you’re not scoring, it sucks. But you have to make sure if you’re not scoring, you got to make sure you’re locked solid in other areas,” Tocchet said.
“I’m not trying to make him a Selke winner. I think there’s certain parts of your game you have to be there for us. You know, obviously, if you’re scoring goals, sometimes a coach can overlook a few little mistakes.
“It’s adversity in his life and he’s got to face it and we got to help him,” he said, listing off his coaching staff of Mike Yeo, Adam Foote and Sergei Gonchar. “Our job is to help and maybe we have to do a better job of making him understand certain things.”
TRADE BLOCK? — Asked Friday about to do with the struggling Kuzmenko president Jim Rutherford noted that the winger is struggling for confidence. Then he made an observation — “He’s a good player, and he can score and there’s no doubt in my mind, whether it’s in Vancouver and another NHL city, he will score but it’s tough. It’s a tough game” — that raised more than a few eyebrows. There’s a wink there towards the possibility that the Canucks are thinking trade when it comes to Kuzmenko, especially following similar comments Patrik Allvin made to Sportsnet earlier this week. … In a sign that Kuzmenko made be scratched again Saturday, the Canucks recalled depth winger Linus Karlsson from AHL Abbotsford.
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