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Despite being the best first-year player in the NHL this season, Vancouver Canucks forward Andrei Kuzmenko isn’t eligible to win the Calder Trophy, as rookie of the year.
But, don’t let that stop you from appreciating his brilliance. Kuzmenko is on a 40-goal pace this season, tallying 32 goals, 27 assists, and 59 points in 64 games for the Canucks.
The first-year Russian has been better than anyone expected, which has certainly impressed his linemate, Elias Pettersson.
“It’s his first year… he’s showed the skillset he has and the scoring touch he has,” Pettersson told reporters last week.
“He’s just a pure goal scorer.”
Filthy little deke by Kuzmenko for the goal 🥴 pic.twitter.com/5qNNjKcEmf
— B/R Open Ice (@BR_OpenIce) March 12, 2023
Oh so close…
So, just how close is Kuzmenko to being eligible for the Calder Trophy?
The rule states that to be considered for NHL rookie of the year, a player must not turn 26 before September 15 of the current season.
Kuzmenko was born on February 4th, 1996, meaning he was just seven months too old to be considered a true NHL rookie.
It’s been like this in the NHL for more than three decades. The league changed the rule after the 1989-90 season after 31-year-old Sergei Makarov won the Calder while playing for the Calgary Flames.
However, players on the cusp of the rule still find themselves in the Calder conversation.
Last season, Toronto Maple Leafs’ winger Michael Bunting was a Calder nominee. He made the cutoff by two days since he was born on September 17, 1995.
This season, Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Logan Thompson, who’s only 12 months younger than Kuzmenko, is in the 2022-23 Calder conversation.
If he were eligible, Kuzmenko would likely win the Calder Trophy this season.
He has an 11-point lead on current Calder Trophy favourite, Seattle Kraken rookie centre Matty Beniers (48), and is 19 points ahead Anaheim Ducks centre Mason McTavish (40). While Kuzmenko has 32 goals, no other first-year player has scored 20 yet.
Buffalo Sabres defenceman Owen Power will likely get nominated this season given he has 26 points and has emerged as a top-pairing defenceman, playing 23:40 per night.
The aforementioned Thompson will get some votes, though a late-season injury has probably ruined the goaltender’s chance at winning. He has a 20-13-3 record in 36 games for Vegas, with a .914 save percentage, a 2.66 goals-against average, and two shutouts.
Kuzmenko on a Canucks record-setting pace
One of the biggest travesties about Kuzmenko’s age is that his borderline historic season will never appear in the NHL record books.
The Russian winger is firmly on pace to have the most goals and points ever by a first-year Canuck.
The first-year forward nets his 11th NHL goal and his first @Energizer overtime winner to give the @Canucks the two points! pic.twitter.com/aKWSp5StwB
— NHL (@NHL) November 28, 2022
With 17 games left, Kuzmenko needs just two more goals to tie Pavel Bure’s rookie record of 34.
Kuzmenko is also just seven points shy of the 66 points that Pettersson set as the new Canucks rookie record back in 2018-19.
Again, none of this will ever appear in the Canucks’ history books.
What’s unfair about this is that older Canucks rookies, who were considered eligible prior to the rule change, do appear in the official records.
The most obvious example is Ivan Hlinka. He had 60 points as a rookie, which is “officially” the third-highest total ever by a first-year Canuck.
Hlinka was 31 years old when he joined the Canucks back in 1981-82.
Chance to join elite company
Not only is Kuzmenko leading the Canucks in goals, but he’s scoring with increased regularity.
The winger has 13 goals in 19 games since Rick Tocchet took over as head coach of the Canucks. That’s tied for the seventh-most goals in the NHL during that stretch.
Andrei Kuzmenko from the Vancouver Canucks has scored his 30th goal of the season last night. It's an incredible to do it in his first NHL season, despite he's 27 years old. In our eyes, there is no doubt, Kuzmenko is already legit 1st line winger and will be for many years. pic.twitter.com/S2ezGaQqRD
— Andy & Rono (@ARHockeyStats) March 9, 2023
If he keeps up that pace, he could very well hit the 40-goal mark.
Although this wouldn’t make it into the history books, it’s worth noting that only 16 first-year players in NHL history have EVER managed to score 40 goals.
Only two players have done so since 2000 — Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews (40 goals in 2016-17) and Washington Capitals winger Alex Ovechkin (52 goals in 2005-06).
Is Kuzmenko improving under Tocchet?
Kuzmenko is scoring more since the coaching change, but is he actually playing better under the Canucks new bench boss?
The stats would suggest so.
With Kuzmenko on the ice, the Canucks are creating almost five more scoring chances per-60 minutes under Tocchet than they were under Bruce Boudreau.
That’s a telling stat, because Kuzmenko previously led the Canucks under Boudreau with 28.9 scoring chances per-60.
And even though he’s scoring more, the Canucks are actually creating more, but scoring less with Kuzmenko on the ice. That’s just due to a slight drop in on-ice shooting percentage (13.1% under Boudreau, 12.2% under Tocchet).
The Canucks are also still giving up a lot of goals with Kuzmenko on the ice. Although his defensive metrics have seen an uptick (like most Canucks under Tocchet), the Canucks have a brutal .842 even-strength save percentage with Kuzmenko on the ice since January 22.
One weird thing about Kuzmenko’s scoring outburst under Tocchet is that it’s basically all come at even strength. The Yakutsk, Russia native has just one power play marker in 19 games since Tocchet took over, and the man advantage as a whole has struggled of late.
However, his even-strength scoring rate has doubled from 0.95 goals per-60 under Boudreau, to two goals per-60 under Tocchet. Kuzmenko is only marginally shooting more, but his even-strength shooting percentage has jumped from 16.9% to 30.7%.
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