Almost every hockey player dreams of trying his hand at the NHL.
But if the majority gets a chance to prove themselves even in their youth, then others achieve what they want already at a mature age by sports standards.
Andrey Kuzmenko, who went to conquer the overseas championship at the age of 26, belongs to the second category.
But unlike many compatriots, the former SKA striker managed to immediately find his place in the league and score more than 40 points in just over half of the season.
Thanks to this, he quickly established himself as one of the leaders of Vancouver and earned a new contract, extending his stay in North America for at least two years.
Another abandoned puck of the Russian came in the away match with New Jersey.
In the fourth minute, Kuzmenko opened up great under the transfer of Luke Schenn, entered the opponent's zone and effortlessly dealt with Vitek Vanechek.
At the same time, a second before the goal, he left Dougie Hamilton, the star of the Devils, one of the ten highest paid NHL defenders ($9 million), with a spectacular feint, out of work.
True, this did not help Vancouver win and improve its position in the Western Conference table.
Wards of Rick Tocquet lost in overtime and could not get closer to St. Louis, located in 11th place.
In general, this season is not going well for the Canucks.
It was expected that they would finally be able to break the unsuccessful streak and qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2020, but so far everything is not going according to plan.
The team failed the first half of the regular season and was left without a head coach at the end of January - Bruce Boudreau, who had held this post for the past two years, was dismissed.
The experienced Canadian was never able to reveal the potential of his players, which is confirmed by the extremely low productivity of a number of leaders.
The same J.T. Miller "shot" only 45 (18 + 27) points in 50 meetings, and Brock Boeser scored only 30 (9 + 21) at all, as a result of which he was exiled to the third link.
The top defender Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who ranks third in terms of salary and last in terms of utility (“-18”), also looks extremely unconvincing.
Against this background, Kuzmenko's performance became a bright spot.
Yes, it took him some time to adapt, but since mid-November he began to regularly benefit and be noted for effective actions.
And this is all the more remarkable, because on the eve of the championship, few expected such a thing from him.
Nevertheless, the Russian came to the league at a more than mature age, and in terms of playing qualities he was not particularly suitable for her.
Having neither outstanding dimensions nor incredible speed qualities, it was an extremely difficult task to compete with the strongest hockey players on the planet.
Suffice it to recall the fiasco of Nikita Gusev, a no less intelligent and gifted forward who never managed to find himself in the NHL.
But it was with him that Andrei was compared - another pupil of the Moscow school "Polar Bears".
In fact, the stories of Kuzmenko and Gusev are similar in many ways.
Both decided to go to North America upon reaching the age of 26 and ended up in far from the strongest teams.
But if Nikita was never able to convince the management of his professional suitability, then Andrei has already entered his name in the history of Vancouver.
To overcome the bar of 40 points, he needed to play only 44 matches - the second most in the history of the club.
Only his teammate Elias Petterson managed to do it faster.
And this despite the fact that at different times such legends as Pavel Bure, Alexander Mogilny, Markus Näslund and the brothers Henrik and Daniel Sedin played for the Canucks.
Moreover, Kuzmenko can be safely called one of the best Russian hockey players who made their debut in the NHL after the onset of the 25th anniversary.
Already now he shares the fourth line in points with the same Gusev and Igor Larionov (both - 44 each) and in the next game he can catch up with German Titov (45).
In this case, only two Sergeys will remain above him - Nemchinov and Makarov.
The first proved to be great in the first championship as part of the Rangers, and the second shocked the hockey world.
He rushed overseas at 31, but in his first season for Calgary, he collected a collection of 24 goals and 62 assists.
As you can see, the leading positions in this list are occupied by the legends of the past, who made their debut in the NHL back in the 20th century.
While at the moment there are not so many athletes who successfully started in the league at a mature age.
Only Nikita Zaitsev (4 + 32) and Ilya Mikheev (8 + 15), who quickly adapted to Toronto, come to mind.
At the same time, there are frankly negative examples.
Take, for example, former SKA partners Nikolai Prokhorkin and Alexander Barabanov.
The first was limited to only 14 points in the first year of his stay in Los Angeles, and the second only once assisted partners in 13 meetings for the same Maple Leafs.
Yes, if you expand the list a little and include players who decided to cross the Atlantic Ocean at the age of 23, then there will be a little more successful examples.
The same Kirill Kaprizov immediately "shot" 51 points, Vladimir Malakhov - 52, and Artemy Panarin broke out with the 77th.
This is largely due to the presence of the star Patrick Kane nearby, but this does not change the essence of the matter.
However, this does not make Kuzmenko's achievement any less significant.
It's one thing to just fill the statistics, it's quite another to get the club's management to bet on you.
But it was this step that the Canucks bosses took when they offered Andrei a two-year contract with an annual salary of $5.5 million. Moreover, they were forced to part with their best sniper, Bo Horvath.
After the re-signing of the agreement with J.T. Miller and the extension of the contract with the Russian, there was simply no room left in the payment for the Canadian, who demanded a solid fee, who could leave the team in the status of a free agent in the summer.
He was eventually traded to the Islanders.
Thus, the most important stage in Kuzmenko's career in the NHL is already beginning, because in the light of the departure of the former captain, even greater achievements will be expected from him.
Now he is definitely one of the main hopes of Vancouver, and with a good combination of circumstances, he can complete the regular season at the rank of the second best scorer.
If it is almost impossible to compete with Petterson, who has finally reached the superstar level, then with other partners he is quite capable.
Now he is behind Miller and Quinn Hughes (both 45 each) by only one point, but in terms of utility he can give odds to the same JT.
The only shame is that Kuzmenko under no circumstances will not be able to compete for the title of the best rookie of the season.
At the moment, he is ahead of all his possible competitors for the Calder Trophy, but his age does not allow him to be among the nominees.
According to the regulations adopted in 1990, only players under the age of 26 can claim the award.
But even though Kuzmenko has already left the brightest impression of himself, the decisive factor for him will be not so much the rest of the current regular season as the second season.
After all, the same Gusev also started quite well in the Devils, but after Lindy Raffa came to the coaching bridge, he found himself in extremely unfavorable conditions and went out.
And it should not be ruled out that this can happen to Andrei.
It is very important for hockey players of his type to be in a system that reveals all their strengths.
And whether Tocquet will be able to create one is a big question.