Sunday, April 14, 2024

‘He’s blown us away’: Kuzmenko already a locker-room fave with Flames

Flames coach Ryan Huska on Andrei Kuzmenko: ‘He’s always got a smile on his face. You don’t always know what he’s saying, but … ’

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Of the handful of Calgary Flames players canvassed on this particular topic, the award for best answer goes to Blake Coleman.

Coleman, like several of his teammates, was asked how he’d go about describing Andrei Kuzmenko to somebody who’d never met the Flames’ latest forward acquisition.

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“I’m trying to picture the best cartoon,” Coleman grinned. “But I’m just going to use the word in general. He’s sort of like a cartoon.

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“Makes you laugh. Fun to watch. He’s got a little bit of everything.”

On Thursday, two-plus weeks after arriving as part of that blockbuster trade with the Vancouver Canucks, Kuzmenko formally introduced himself to the Saddledome crowd.

Head coach Ryan Huska was hardly going out on a limb when he predicted: “I do believe he’s going to be a fan favourite.”

He already is.

Even more important, the Russian right-winger has been an immediate hit behind the scenes.

His new teammates howl at his wisecracks and dance moves.

They loved his post-game speech last week in Boston, where he made it clear in just five words that he is fully invested in the wildcard quest and wasn’t moping about being shipped out by a top contender. “Go to playoffs,” he declared, clutching the keepsake puck from his first goal in Flames’ silk. “Let’s go!”

And they appreciate his efforts, despite a language barrier, to immediately become buddy-buddy with every other dude on the roster.

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Certainly, nobody has accused this 28-year-old sharpshooter of being shy. Since it seems like he is on a permanent sugar rush, it’s perhaps not that surprising that he would sometimes sip Pepsi on the bench in Vancouver.

“He’s a bubbly personality,” Huska said. “He’s always got a smile on his face. You don’t always know what he’s saying, but … ”

“I’d say he’s a goofy guy,” added Flames defenceman MacKenzie Weegar. “Obviously, he’s got that crazy hair going. He doesn’t speak English very well, but he seems like he’s happy-go-lucky. That’s another way I could describe him. He always has a smile on his face. He’s always making jokes. If he’s talking to you, he is right up in your face and making all these facial expressions. He’s great. He has been an awesome fit so far.”

It didn’t take long for fellow forward Kevin Rooney to get a sense that Kuzmenko — currently skating alongside Yegor Sharangovich and Jonathan Huberdeau on a talented trio — is a one-of-a-kind.

The Flames regrouped in Boston after the all-star break. Kuzmenko, who was on vacation in Mexico when he agreed to waive his no-trade clause to green-light this change of address, ripped a power-play goal on his second shift against the Bruins, showcasing the wicked shot that made him one of Vancouver’s leading lamp-lighters last season.

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“After he scored that goal, he was sitting next to me on the bench, just laughing,” Rooney relayed. “He was saying, ‘I haven’t played this many minutes in a long time!’ I’m like, ‘What are you talking about?’ He said, ‘They didn’t play me this much.’ I’m like, ‘It’s only been five minutes!’ ”

Andrei Kuzmenko
Calgary Flames forward Andrei Kuzmenko, rear, celebrates after his goal against Boston Bruins goaltender Jeremy Swayman during the first period of an NHL game, Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024, in Boston. Charles Krupa/AP Photo

Thursday’s matchup against the Sharks marked Kuzmenko’s fifth outing in the Flaming C logo.

Although he insisted that he’s yet to show “my maximum,” he has impressed with that sizzling shot, with sneaky playmaking abilities and with a determination to show he is more dependable — or at least more committed — defensively than Canucks coach Rich Tocchet was giving him credit for.

“I think he’s blown us away in every category,” said Coleman, who was serving as an alternate captain Thursday as the Flames now rotate the ‘A’ that previously belonged to Elias Lindholm. “You know, you read what you read in the media and obviously you think, ‘Oh, he’s not working out somewhere. What’s the issue?’ And I can’t figure it out. He works hard. He’s a funny guy. He wants to win. I think he’s blown us away.”

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“For us, there’s that, ‘We want guys who want to be here’ mentality,” Weegar echoed. “With the trade, Elias obviously didn’t want to sign here and I think Kuzy was going through a tough time in Vancouver, so he’s getting a fresh start here. So when you get that kind of swap and you get a guy like that coming in, it obviously brightens up the room and lifts everybody up a little bit.“

Indeed, this fresh face has provided an immediate jolt for a crew that is brimming with belief, even with the looming likelihood of more significant subtractions from the roster.

“Maybe after one week, the guys will say, ‘Kuzy, can you please slow down? Can you please be quiet?’ ” Kuzmenko told Flames TV during the recent road trip. “What can I say? I am a positive guy and I want to give energy to this team, because I like these guys a lot.”

That feeling is mutual.

“I think he is a pretty special person,” said rookie forward Martin Pospisil. “I love how he brings the energy to the locker room. He never turns it off, and I love it.”

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