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Winter, Nikolai Kulemin and the higher gear

I’m not alone in Leafland having noticed that Nikolai Kulemin has been slow off the mark again this season.  On the one hand that’s fine, as we will need him when things get tougher in the second half of the season and into the playoffs. (Did I just hear former Colts coach Jim Mora yell “PLAYOFFS…..PLAYOFFS….”?  NFL fans of a few years back might appreciate the reference.) But we do need the versatile winger to recapture his offensive game pretty soon.

In this sense, Nik is reminding me a bit of another one-time young and powerful Maple Leaf winger, Frank Mahovlich.  At times, Frank (a big guy for his era at maybe 6 fot 1, 195 pounds or so) could be slow off the mark, but would generally pick up steam as the season went on.  The best hockey writer of that wonderful late 1950s/early 1960s era, Scott Young at the Globe & Mail, once wrote that Leaf fans could relax, all would be well with Mahovlich.  Young’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek reference was that “the Big M”, as Mahovlich was called, would pick up his play when the tall winger had to start curling his feet to tuck them under his blanket at night.  Meaning that Mahovlich was a guy who liked to play hockey when it was hockey weather- you know, winter-time, when it’s cold and there’s ice on your windshield and snow on the ground. (The classic old photo at right shows Mahovlich in action in the early '60s.)

So maybe this is how Kulemin is, too. The talented Russian was similarly less than scintillating last year as I recall, in the early part of the regular-season.  But he certainly grew stronger and more productive as the year went forward, finishing with a nice round total of 30 goals.

Now, it helped that his center, Mikhail Grabovski, was playing the most inspired hockey of his professional life at the time.  And that Clarke MacArthur, he of the “arbitration walk-away” letdown, was a one-year contract guy trying to show the league (and particularly the Leafs) he deserved more.

The trio became, at least in our local eyes, a formidable line and Kulemin was a big part of that.

I have opined here in the past couple of years that I saw Kulemin tracking a bit like Lanny McDonald did in the mid-1970s with the Leafs.  McDonald was a very high first round draft choice in 1973 and came in with huge expectations.  He struggled a lot with his confidence in his first couple of seasons but really hit his stride in his third season with the Leafs.

Kulemin has been a bit more consistent throughout, but in fairness, came in with far more modest expectations that McDonald.  That said, he has not had the huge "breakout" season like McDonald had by the time McDonald was 25.  Leaf fans of the mid-'70s era well know that Lanny combined with Darryl Sittler to give the Leafs some real offensive punch through the end of that decade.

Kulemin has size like McDonald (even bigger), and is, like Lanny, a nice all-around player.  McDonald, though, could lift the team with a fight or a big hit and also play the walls and the corners.  While Kulemin can be physical, I’d like to see him have an even larger physical presence in the way he plays.  I like so much about his game, I don’t want to sound picky.  But I just sense he has more to give.  I realize Grabovski was out for a while, but we can all see that Kulemin, when he is getting chances, is either shooting off-target or hitting the goalie in the chest.

Confidence is an elusive thing, even for seasoned professionals.  At 25, Kulemin is still a pretty young guy.  What he probably needs most is for one to go in off his back side and then the flood gates might open and the goals will come.

In his first three NHL seasons with the Leafs, his point totals progressed from 31 to 36 and then 57.  But right now, while I'm not a big fan of "he's on pace for...", he is pointing much more to his rookie year numbers than last season's- much less a big jump in production in this, his fourth season in the league.

I think we have all been expecting more.

But in the meantime, you often hear coaches say that the best thing a guy who is struggling with his offensive game can do is work even harder in all the other areas of his game, all over the ice.  Tough checking does seem to lead to more opportunities "in transition" as we all seem to want to call it nowadays.  A little physicality might not hurt him, either.  He does not always play like a guy that weighs 225 pounds.

I’ll take it if it comes later in the season when the team will need it more, and in fairness, he hasn’t been terrible this year so far.  Just not as good as he can be, or needs to be on this team to be an impact guy.  There can be all kinds of reasons for that.  Until this season, I've been very impressed with his career arc.  But there has been some stagnation in his game of late.

I'd rather Kulemin not be traded, that he stay here and grow as a solid two-way winger that every really good team needs on its second line.

For now, I’ll continue to believe his better play is just around the corner.  It is winter, after all.


  1. kulemin hasn't been producing, but thankfully others have. mac + grabbo have both had injuries this fall, and their line has never really had much time to get in the groove like last year. i think when the three are all 100% healthy and reunited, kulemin will find his confidence again, and then look out!

  2. Mike (leaferbeleafer)December 2, 2011 at 10:02 AM

    I know that it has been mentioned (and rejected as not valid) by others before me, but I do think that Nik may be struggling a bit mentally with all that has been going on close to him as well. The Lokomotiv crash. The preseason suspension to a teammate (when you really want to find that chemistry again)plus the injury to another linemate all rolled into one. People have said perhaps he should take a leave from the game. That would be the worst thing to do. You need to plow through, keep distracted. Trust me, I know. He's doing all the little things right. It's just a matter of time before the russian rocket propels again to that steady but silent 30 goal scorer (perhaps not quite 30 this year) that we all know he is capable of.

    Great site! I know why Sam is reading it wherever she is :)

  3. Thanks for posting Alex're right, there is no reason that if those three are re-united and healthy, they won't produce. Kulemin is far to young to be "written off" because of his struggles (so far) this particular season...

    Mike, I'm glad you took the time to write. I hope you know that, even though I did not know Sam personally, I was touched by her reference to this site in her touching final letter.

    I'm sure you are right that if Kulemin has been (understandably so) affected by the loss of friends in that terrible disaster, keeping busy may be a healthy requirement. I'm hoping Leaf fans will be patient because this is a young man with talent. He has more to give, as I mentioned in the post, and hopefully something will trigger his extra gear and he will feel like himself again, and that will also help with his on-ice game. Thanks Mike.

  4. I hope you're right Michael, but I'm starting to doubt Kulemin. I'm seeing a big guy who doesn't use his size, and a guy who's making it easy for opposing goalies by shooting right at them - when he gets it on the net. His defensive play has been pretty solid, so he's not a liability yet. But how long do we carry him if he continues to underachieve?
    This leads me to another question. The Grabbo line, for all the reasons mentioned above and who knows why else, hasn't clicked for the few games they've been together. Bozak's working well with Lupul and Kessel, Connolly looks good with MacArthur, and Grabovski isn't really a third line guy... something's got to give, doesn't it? How about Kuli and Schenn for Ryan?

  5. Geund O'...those are all valid points and questions. I'd like to think Kulemin is simply having a difficult season so far, and that this is a short-term funk. As we both know, sometimes a fluke goal can get a guy going (a nice one would help, too!)...

    I know the trade talk will always include Kulemin, but I'd prefer he stay here. He has shown he can score 30 goals and play good defence. Bobby Ryan may score 40, but will be be a better all-around player down the road?

    We should get some answers in the next few weeks...

  6. I have been concerned with Kulemin for some time now. Earlier on this season, he was getting plenty of scoring opportunities but lately those have dried it up as well. Now, he's a good defensive player so he will not hurt you in your end but to me his lack of offensive creativity is really becoming apparent.

    Not advocating trading him now as his trade value is low but he'll need to be significantly better for the Leafs to continue their solid play.

  7. That often seems to be how it goes, eh, Carm- guy can't score when he gets chances, then loses confidence. When he does shoot it's right at the goalie. Something has to give.....I'm betting he breaks out.

  8. Long suffering Leaf fanDecember 2, 2011 at 9:20 PM

    Great reference to Mahovlich. I also believe that Nikolai will pull it together very soon. I remember in the first 24 games of the 82-83 season Rick Vaive only had 2 goals and he ended up with 51 that season. As Mr Wilson said, "if he wasn't putting himself in position to score, then there would be reason to be concern". I'm going on record here and predict that Kulemin will score a pair tomorrow night and end the season with 30 or more goals.

  9. Long Suffering...thanks a big-time (and bold!) prediction about Kulemin. I like it.....

  10. Long suffering Leaf fanDecember 3, 2011 at 9:53 PM

    ummmmm OK no more predictions from me Mike. The boys all night did not managed the puck well. To many behind the back passes, guys standing around in the neutral zone, and not picking up their man and out of position in the defensive end. On a good note at least James Reimer look soild.

  11. Don't worry Long Suffering...I won;t hold you to that prediction! But Kulemin still has lots of time to play like he can.....and the ability to make it happen.