Andrei Kuzmenko shuffled his feet and nervously paused before addressing pressing questions Monday.
What did the Vancouver Canucks winger make of being a healthy scratch Friday in Seattle and then again Saturday in San Jose? And how is he going to play Tuesday to regain the trust of head coach Rick Tocchet?
“Difficult questions. I don’t like now at this moment,” Kuzmenko said Monday following practice where he was reunited with Elias Pettersson and Ilya Mikheyev. “Maybe we finish now (laughs). But I need good play and it’s so simple. It’s not a problem for me.”
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The problem for Tocchet isn’t that Kuzmenko has just three goals and 28 shots and a 10.7-per-cent shooting percentage in 19 games after exploding for 39 last season. It’s that his play with and without the puck has left a lot to be desired. It’s OK to be creative with the puck and do a spinarama move in the slot, but it’s not OK to ignore other key elements of the game that must be executed on a consistent basis.
In Tocchet’s hockey vernacular it’s “protecting the guts of the ice” and being as good without the puck as Kuzmenko can be with it.
“When the puck is out in the neutral zone, you’ve got to hustle back to be an option,” stressed Tocchet. “Be a middle-drive guy and with pucks around the wall — you’ve got to get them out. Those are the little things I value around here. It’s not just about scoring goals.
“If you’re not scoring, that’s fine. Scorers are going to go through slumps. Little things matter, and he understand that’s the bible for us. They’re very important. And when we play slow, we’re not a very good team.”
Tocchet’s decision Friday to sit Kuzmenko in Seattle and Saturday in San Jose wasn’t that difficult. A four-line effort against the Kraken in a 5-1 win also made it easier for the bench boss to reward a total team effort.
“It’s game to game and I’m obviously not going to sit the guy on the shelf for a lot of games. The way we played in Seattle, it was hard to pull a guy out,” added Tocchet, who had previously voiced his displeasure with Kuzmenko.
“For the last seven games, our game has slipped a little bit and I’ve been very quiet. I’m not going to be quiet for very long. I got a great response today (Monday practice) and that’s the one thing about these guys. I had players coming to me and saying that we’ve got to get our game back.
“They recognize it and that’s how I deal with it around here. You can’t be scared to give a guy praise or crap, or vice versa. Players will come in and tell me they deserve more ice time and to watch their shifts and I will say they’re right.”
Kuzmenko arrived at training camp with a two-year, $11-million US contract extension and improved fitness. Did he think that would make it easier? Did he take last season for granted?
It’s why school was back in session Monday. But what effect with just one day of instruction on and off the ice have? Tocchet obviously needs Kuzmenko to revert to his dynamic form that led to considerable chemistry with Pettersson and a gaudy league-leading 27.3-per-cent shooting accuracy.
But that came on a losing team that wasn’t going to make the playoffs and needed to play a more structured as opposed to a loose game.
For his part, Kuzmenko was talking more anticipation than angst Monday.
“It’s good. I’m excited,” he said. “Very important these next two games because we need a win. It’s important for me to play good games after a break. I’ve been working in the gym and this is a very important moment for me.
“I need to get better with the forecheck and backcheck and make the good defensive plays. It’s so simple and not difficult for me. I just need to play better, and I understand that I’ve got to help the team.”
That’s good because Tocchet doesn’t buy into the theory that if you don’t use a good player, you could lose him mentally, especially if he’s selfish. The tail is never going to wag the dog in the coach’s world.
“If he’s sitting in my office and saying, ‘Hey coach, you’re crazy and I’m playing great,’ then we’ve got issues,” said Tocchet. “He knows he’s not playing well. I’ve gone through it and you’ve got to self-evaluate how you get better.
“You’re not going to lose a guy who wants to get better.”
Pettersson expects Kuzmenko to embrace the challenge of playing at speed and making plays to get the line back to being more responsible and having a more noticeable offensive-zone presence.
“He’s a good player and I’ll be excited to play with him,” Pettersson said of Kuzmenko.
OVERTIME — To reinsert Kuzmenko, it meant Phil Di Giuseppe was the odd-man out in line rushes Monday. “He has been OK, but has slipped a little bit. He’s got to get back to that forecheck, and I’m not sure it’s going to be him (sitting out) and we’ve got some time to decide.
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