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Was that a mirage, or did we just see a Kulemin breakthrough?

The Leafs reached the half-way mark of the season (41 games) on the weekend. With that as a backdrop, Darren Yourk of The Globe and Mail, the editor of, invited a few people to take part in the Globe’s mid-season Maple Leaf podcast.  James Mirtle, the well-regarded Leaf beat writer for the Globe was on hand, along with Julian Sanchez (PPP) from Pension Plan Puppets.  I appreciated being invited to take part again, as I had been at the end of last season and just before the current season got underway.  Here is a link to the discussion:

Quite a number of topics were covered.  If you get a chance to listen, I hope you enjoy it.


Perhaps the most baffling aspect of the Leaf season (currently a very hopeful-feeling season) has been the production of winger Nikolai Kulemin.

Going into Tuesday night’s encounter against the struggling Sabres, Kulemin had found the back of the net a grand total of 4 times through the first half of the NHL schedule.  Kulemin—still only 25 years of age—had netted 15, 16 and then 30 goals in his first three seasons, overcoming challenges including language and new surroundings to grow into a solid, two-way NHL winger at a fairly tender age.

In fact, I posted on Kulemin a number of times over the past two seasons.  I thought he would break out last season and he did (though he didn’t quite double his point production from the year previous, which I mentioned here that I thought he was capable of doing).  Regardless, I really liked his career arc, and thought his progression would continue into the 2011-’12 season.

Other have mentioned that he may have been deeply affected by the terrible plane crash which took the lives of a KHL team a few months ago.  It was a devastating tragedy and may well have (and understandably so) contributed to the young Russian’s slow start to the current season.

Through the first part of the season, his game was uneven though the work ethic seemed to be there.  The puck was not going in for him, but you didn’t get the sense that he was hurting the team most nights.

Yet as time wore on, you could detect that even Ron Wilson seemed baffled by Kulemin’s lack of offense, though he did his best to try to deflect any criticism that might have been directed toward his player.

I think most of us assumed/hoped his production would increase and that his slow start would be forgotten.  But as we hit that 41-game mark—and as his former and now sometimes linemate Mikhail Grabovski seemed to finally find his game—Kulemin still looked a bit lost too much of the time.

Gone was the assertiveness that had been growing through last season, replaced by, not indifferent play exactly, but a less than focused, determined approach, it seemed.

In his first three years, Kulemin had gone from being a minus player in his rookie year (minus 7), to an even player in his sophomore season and a plus 7 a season ago.  He was even through the first 41 games this season.

I remember following his progress as best I could from a distance at the 2011 World Championships this past spring.  He earned less and less ice time, it seemed, as the tournament unfolded.  But I thought that was just an aberration, and he would show up at Leaf camp ready to roll in September.

But as his contributions lessened, his ice time, not surprisingly, has also declined—not dramatically, but it has been less on average this season than it was in each of the last two seasons.

Then came the Buffalo game.

Kulemin opened the scoring on a Leaf power play, and then arranged Grabovski’s 13th of the season.  Suddenly, Kulemin, in one period, had his first two-point game in what felt like forever, and only his second on the season, I think.

Now, we should be clear that we have seen that sense of relief on Kulemin’s (and ours as well) face a few times already this season—almost every time he has scored.  We remember because he has scored so seldom that each one has stood out and we now recognize the look.  Unfortunately, to this point, those “moments” where Kulemin was his old self (or at least when the puck was going in the net for him) have not led to a consistent surge in production for him.  They have more been “one-offs”, if you will.

When Nik belted Kaleta in the third period, it evoked memories of another part of his game that we maybe haven’t seen as often this year—the physical dimension, as in good, clean, old-fashioned body-checking.  (Kaleta is an annoying piece of work when he’s not on your team—the Leaf faithful at the ACC liked that one…).

So we had the “full Kulemin” on display Tuesday night.  Grinding winger, goal-scorer, set-up guy, a player with size who can lay a big hit.

Was it a one-night wonder?  Or will Kulemin (like Grabovski now seems to be) begin to play this way most nights the rest of the way?

Those who follow this site know I’m a Kulemin guy, so hopefully the Buffalo game will trigger a much-awaited turnaround.

I guess we’ll see. 


  1. I was lucky enough to be at last night's game, and it felt like the old Kulemin/Grabovski magic was returning. It was Nik's best game of the season, I'd say, and Grabs is looking more and more like his old self. I'd like to see MacArthur reunited with them, though he looked lost last night, I thought.
    Kulemin is a very likable guy. If he can find his old game again, and give us another line that can score, there'll be joy in Leafville come the spring!
    Other observations: Komisarek is continuing his good year, Franson is looking like he belongs... in fact, only Schenn looks a little bewildered from time to time, and not all that often. Brown and Boyce add that muckulent dimension we so need - silent kudos to Bobby C every time I use that word, and the Monster looks relaxed and focused. Kessel/Lupul/Connolly looked out of sync, for the first time in a long time. The Lombardi/MacArthur/Kadri line had little chemistry - I must be the only fan who is underwhelmed by Kadri's performance on this latest go-round.
    There will be some difficult decisions coming for management (barring a significant trade, perhaps) when Liles, Bozak, and Armstrong return. I have the feeling Gardiner will shortly be back with the Marlies. Much as we all like him, he isn't really missed.

  2. Nice to see Kulemin have a stand-out night. Could you call that a Gordie Roberts hat trick? Goal, assist and a big hit?

    One thing I've noticed about the Leafs is how much deeper the organization is. A couple of years ago I'd scratch my head when they had call ups due to injuries. Who are these guys? It now seems they'll have much more difficult decisions to make when players like Bozak and Armstrong return. The 4th line yesterday played very well with much energy.

  3. i'm a kulemin fan... i was at the sabres/leafs game in buffalo in december when he scored on miller with the penalty shot. his hit on kaleta was great.... keep it up kulemin! cheers mike! alex @

  4. That's a really good overview on last night's game, Gerund O'. Thanks. There are nuances in the flow of the game and in the play of individual guys that you get by observing in person, that we tend not to be able to pick up on television. (Plus you got to avoid the sometimes annoying commentary!) hit the nail on the head. This is a deeper team, for sure. It's harder to make the Leaf line-up, and guys generally have fairly defined roles and work to those expectations.

    Alex C. I'm a Kulemin guy too, so it was good to see him break out a bit last night. I think a lot of people liked that hit on Kaleta....(Thanks for the link. I aim to check that out today..I'll let you know if there is a problem connecting.....)

  5. haha thanks mike... i'm not sure how to communicate with you other than by commenting on VLM. my site isn't hockey related (although i discussed sports injuries) but i'm hoping to collect a couple more 'followers' if only for the sake of my pride! haha.

  6. Alex C....let me know if it e-mail is Thanks!

  7. I predicted Kulemin would lead the Leafs in scoring this year, way to let me down. Hopefully he can rebound to at least get to the 20 goal mark and be effective on the scoresheet. His work ethic and all-around game is always a plus even when not scoring.

    A positive to Kulemin not leading the Leafs is Kessel and Lupul being outstanding. Scoring droughts, coaster, salary dump, injury prone - where are those doubters/labellers now hehe.

  8. I found today’s discussion right on the mark. Thank you, Gerund. I understand you pointing out that you were present at the game, a fact that, by default, should magnify your observations in everyone’s minds. At this point, I would express my admiration to the mental toughness of three players in particular: Komisarek, Kulemin and Gustavsson.
    Komisarek has been unfairly dissed in the Barilkosphere since arriving in Toronto. The internet mobbing was not solely based on his contract (frankly, a stupid basis for criticism) because he seemed to struggle a bit with the evolving speed of the game. However, in my opinion, he has nicely adapted his skill set to the team’s fast paced game. Kudos to Komisarek, Wilson, and the other coaches for elevating his performance. I feel that Kulemin must have been affected by the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl crash. Nevertheless, he never became a liability, has persevered and looks ready, as Michael described in detail, to reclaim his career arc. I wrote in the past here that I worried about Gustavsson’s mental state, given the unfairness swirling around him: ignorant criticism, poor support from teammates, along with questionable coaching decisions (by Wilson, not Allaire, who deserves credit for his evolution).
    Gustavsson brings me to my last point. I am encouraged by the collaboration between the mainstream media and the Barilkosphere evinced by the podcast in today’s link. I have listened to the first ten minutes, and will listen to the rest later in the day. While I would not like to see the Barilkosphere co-opted by the mainstream, some acknowledgment and interaction is appropriate on both sides of the fence. James Mirtle appears to be the one breaking the ice in this area. I am not sure if he is taking heat for this, but regardless, he deserves credit. I have been amused to repeatedly read in the mainstream media about Gustavsson how “no one saw this coming”. In fact, in Gustavsson’s darkest hour I wrote: “Gustavsson has the skill set to be not only a good NHL goalie but, under the right circumstances, a dominant one. If the coaches, players and management around him are supportive and the stars finally line up, he has the potential to surprise what Ron Wilson calls “the unsophisticated observer” with a successful career.”
    While there is, admittedly, a little, “I told you so,” in my self-quotation, here is the bigger point: Insightful observations about the Leafs and hockey in general are there for the picking. In fact, we read them every day in Michael’s posts. It is probably time for more direct acknowledgment and quotation in the mainstream media of the sophisticated observers tapping on their keyboards far and wide. Along these lines, some editor somewhere should consider putting together a daily selection of serious quotation culled from the great resource that the Barilkosphere has become.

  9. Skill2Envy...I, too, thought Kulemin would proceed on his nice career arc. It may happen if he has peace of mind in the second half....We all deal with all kinds of issues in our loves; who knows what Kulemin has been working through?

    And you are absolutely correct: the consistent excellence of Kessel and Lupul has quieted the negatives. I have acknowledged myself that I have wondered if Kessel could become a Modano/Yzerman- a young player with immense talent who may (or may not) eventually "get it". As for Lupul, as I've also mentioned here, I loved his game years ago....but did not see this coming....

    The criticisms may re-surface some day, but for now, all is good!. Thanks as always.

  10. Slill2Envy: I tried to break up the paragraphs, to make my long posts more readable, but it looks like I need to hit "enter" one more time to achieve this separation of paragraphs. Next time.

  11. Bobby C...I appreciate your point on Komisarek. I've been among those (consistently, I hope...) who have wanted to believe- and posted as much- from his early days and struggles here that there is a solid, contributing player there that just needed a comfort zone to be able to show Leaf world what he can contribute. And I, too, think he is slowly accomplishing that task and meeting the challenge.

    I well recall your points on The Monster. I take the comments here seriously, because I have a great deal of respect for the people who post here.

    You have become an important contributor, for sure. But to you broader point, I could not agree more that views on "hockey" or the Leafs are no longer the exclusive domain of the select few who work for the major dailies, or any form of mainstream media.

    Worthwhile insight can come from just about anywhere: life experience, the wisdom that comes from observing behaviour of many years, having played the game at some level- whatever. Those things are just the tip of the iceberg. Good analysis is just that and comes from all over the place.

    You don't necessarily have to speak with the players and the coaches everyday to have some understanding of the "culture", some sense of what it takes to be a professional in the sporting world. For too long "fans" relied on what they read in the daily post-game coverage or on the views of a favourite columnist. And that was fine.

    But we know now, and probably always have, that the thoughtful "fan", some who follows, understands and loves the game, contributes to the dialogue, whether the debate is about fighting in hockey, who should coach the Leafs, what guy should be acquired in a trade or who fits best on the fourth-line (always a popular discussion for Leaf fans!).

    Everyone who contributes thoughtfully is worth listening to. I won't name all the people who make this site what it has become, but they know who they are. And I appreciate them immensely.

    And I, too, hope the interaction between "mainstream" media and non-mainstream contributors continues to evolve in a respectful manner.

    Thanks Bobby C.

  12. I'd like to point out that Kulemin's season has slowly but steadily improved ever since I dropped him from my fantasy keeper team. I wonder how Phaneuf's production would skyrocket if I dropped him as well- he might just win the scoring title.

  13. Clearly there is a connection, KidK. Go for it.

  14. I think Kulemin has tied for 2nd best "Hit by a Leaf" this season.

    1st goes to Phaneuf on Da Costa

    and 3-way tie with Kulemin would be Phaneuf on Sauer and Schenn on Anismov

    Honourable mentions: Phaneuf on Kelly