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Nikolai Kulemin: wait until next season

It finally hit me on the weekend, while watching Nikolai Kulemin do everything but actually put the put into the opposing net:  I’ve seen this move before, albeit in a much different (and not necessarily comparable, I realize) time and place.

Before I get into the specifics with regard to that reference, here is my perspective on Kulemin: as I've said before, he was on a very nice career arc heading into this season.  We all saw the improving point totals and increasing responsibility under Ron Wilson.  He meshed well with Mikhail Grabovski—especially so when Clarke McArthur joined the line a season ago.

Whatever has held him back this season (the KHL tragedy, contract thoughts, being on the trading block, lost confidence, etc.) he has not been the same guy we were used to seeing.  Oh, he still plays pretty hard, goes to the right spots, doesn’t “hurt” the team, generally speaking, with his defensive play.  And, a bit amazingly, he’s a “plus” player despite his minuscule goal totals.

But even I, who have been a big Kuli booster the last three seasons as he has matured as a player, will not try to claim he’s still playing great.  Setting aside the obvious offensive woes, one play the other night was a reflection of the less than stellar year he is having:  he was back near and around his own goalie's crease (I believe this was during the Washington game) but essentially stood there, not doing much of anything, as the other team scored.  So, he was in the "right" place, but a lack of that difference-making "extra effort" was at least partially responsible for a back-breaking goal in a close game.

Throw in that I don’t think he’s a physical as he can and should be, and I’m sorry, 7 goals or whatever is not good enough for a second-line winger.  An off-year this season would have been, say, 15 goals—and he’ll have to peddle like heck these last 12 games to even get there.  It's pretty unlikely.

But 7 or 8 goals?  No, even if you're Bob Gainey—the best defensive forward in the game for a decade in the 1970s and '80s—that’s not nearly enough.  But my thought is a hopeful one:  that this is an aberration.  I think Kulemin will bounce back with a much more productive year in 2012-’13.

What makes me think so?  Well, he has too much skill and he’s way too smart a player for him to suddenly become a perennial 10-goal scorer in the NHL.  I don’t see him going the road of Scott Gomez or Jonathan Cheecho, two fine players who were premier offensive talents for a time but saw the wheels seemingly fall off their games very suddenly.

Sometimes, for reasons we just don’t understand, these kinds of 'one-off' seasons happen.  I’m sure we can all cite NHL’ers that this has happened to in more current times.  But for me, an example I harken back to involves a favorite old 1960s Leaf of mine, Dave Keon.

Through Keon’s first seven years in the NHL in the early 1960s he was one of the best all-around players in the game.  A brilliant skater, he was a diligent forechecker and a fine penalty-killer who always scored 20 or more goals a season when that was a key benchmark in the old "Original Six" NHL.

Suddenly, something clicked “off” in the first year of expansion in 1967-‘68, and Keon (left) could not buy a goal.  Even though the Leafs were playing lesser opposition (by far) than in the old 6-game NHL, Keon could only manage 11 goals in the newly-expanded 74-game schedule.  I remember him being quoted after the season as saying that he was “standing still” too much that season and never really got his game going consistently.  He bounced back with three great seasons over the next few years, scoring 27, 32 and then 38 goals.  He was an-end-of-season NHL All-Star (second team) at the end of the 1970-’71 season.  (One quick aside:  ironically, in terms of assists, Keon had his best year, to that point in his career, in  that terrible 1967-’78, earning a total of 37 assists—and he was a “plus” player, just like Kulemin is now.  Stan Mikita, the tremendous Chicago center on the famous “Scooter Line”, led the NHL that season with 97 points but was a “minus” player.  Go figure…)

Interestingly, Kulemin still could end up with a career high in assists this season, his fourth in the NHL. (He had 27 last year, 21 so far this season.)  Whether last season’s 30-goal breakout year was an aberration, I don’t know.   He scored 15 and 16 in his first two seasons.  He turns 26 this summer.  He should be in his prime.

I’m a bit frustrated with his play this season, but plenty of guys go through this, for all kinds of seasons. I think he is capable of being a big, physical winger who can eat up minutes under Carlyle.  I see him as a guy who can score 25 goals a season—sometimes more, sometimes less.  He should be a prototypical Burke/Carlyle guy in many ways, if he can simply play a more physical game- consistently.

This is why I’m not so inclined to want to see the Leafs try to trade him this summer.  Teams spend a lot of time trying to find 200+ pound wingers who can play the in the corners, along the boards and front of the net, as well as score goals and be defensively responsible.  We already have one of those guys.  We just need to make sure he feels good about his game—and himself—heading into next season.


  1. I hope they keep Kulemin.

    I am starting to get excited about the Leafs again...with a bit of luck they could draft as high as 3rd.

    Mikhail Grigorenk...Alex Galchenyuk?

  2. We've probably shifted gears from hoping for a playoff spot to thinking in terms of a solid draft pick, but it is what it is.

    Thanks DP.

  3. Here's the problem for me with your analogy, Michael: Keon had 7 20+ goal seasons before he went flat. It was definitely an aberration year. That's something that cannot be said about the enigma that is Kulemin. He's just been another underperformer on the Leafs this year, and it's been painful to watch his indecision, bad decisions, lousy shooting and general befuddlement on the ice. He's been out of sync with Grabovski all year long.
    I think he's emblematic of a larger problem facing us. Brian Burke, in his own words, doesn't want to "blow up" this team that he's assembled over the past 4 years. I'm wondering, as we slide inexorably into last place, why not? How could it be worse? Why should anyone - besides Gustavsson, maybe - be considered untouchable if a good deal is there? Heck, I like Kulemin but would Kadri, say, have been any worse?
    It's funny - I just watched an old Leaf game from 1964, and saw Keon work his magic. I know it's not really fair to compare, but if Kulemin could raise his game to Keon's level, he'd be a bona fide keeper. As it is, if he got traded, I'd be sorry to see him go, but it wouldn't upset me. But I don't think he's been playing well enough for any other team to want him.
    If he becomes a "Carlyle-type" guy, he could be a real force. I keep waiting for him to wake up and say "Hey, I'm 200+ pounds! I'm going to use my size and speed!" But I fear that's like expecting Kessel to play like Lucic. Ain't gonna happen, not his style. And another year played like this one would be Kulemin's ticket out of Leafland.

  4. I too hope Kulemin comes back next year. But like I have said a couple of times in the last month or so "hope isn't a plan". I like Kulemin, I like his game and I generally like his effort but truth be told I don't want to fall into the same trap the Leaf brass has this year and overvalue guys. Kulemein has been here for 3 years now and in every year the Leafs have missed the playoffs and now seem farther off than ever having been passed by some teams that were well behind them last year (Ottawa, Florida). To be fair I'm not blaming Kulemin for this year, lord knows there enough blame to go around but at this point I really don't care anymore if someone goes.

    I think that might be what bothered me most about the Grabovski deal. Yeah I get he is a decent player, yeah I get there isn't a better option on the free agent market, but so what? What pray tell have they won with this collection of players? Are they going to start winning now he is signed to a 5 year deal at 27 million?

    Why should they keep them? Maybe its time to sink or swim with the supposed depth of talent they have down below. I don't really know anymore. That said I wouldn't give these guys away for a bag of pucks but I would be open to trading any player another team asked for a fair return.

  5. I can't argue with a word you wrote, Gerund O'....Thanks.

  6. I appreciate your perspective, Willbur. I agree, "hope" is certainly not a plan. And it's stunning that we are even talking about "vying" for a high draft pick, almost as though that was an achievement, or something to strive for. Not what we were expecting, eh?

    You're right on Kulemin. He stalled in a big way this season. I acknowledge I may be more hopeful than anything else, about he, and Reimer, etc.

    As for Grabbo, I don't know what to think. In part, he is "valuable" not only because he is a nice player, but because we don't have (remarkably) any other top centres in the system who are ready to play right now, other than Bozak. And he, too, for all that I like about him, is a developing player. We don't know what his true ceiling is.

    Whether we will look at Grabovski in two years and say he has one of those "untrade-able" contacts, well, I guess we'll see.

    While it's best not to make decisions when the team is playing over its head - or below its capabilities - I, too, wonder who is untouchable at this point. Gardiner?

    Thanks Willbur.

  7. What's happened to Kulemin on this roster is in lockstep with what's happened to this team in the league. The finest hockey minds are completely bewildered. That said, there are more obvious issues with the team than with Nikolai. He isn't in a contract year, I hadn't heard a peep about trading him until the rumored first he'd have fetched at the deadline, and one doesn't lose confidence instantaneously, it's more of an erosion. The KHL tragedy is definitely plausible, but I haven't seen much in the way of linking him to those who perished, nor do I believe he's made any comment to support this. Kulemin has an impressive pedigree and this is as uncharacteristic of him as it is uncommon in the league. I hope Carlyle can get to the root of the issue.

    I'm beginning to wonder if any number of factors are making Toronto a difficult place to play. History is littered with players who have left this team to have excellent careers, and players who have come here to great expectations and have fallen flat. The Steen/Colaiacovo/Stempniak situation comes immediately to mind. It may go deeper, maybe there is a current locker room issue. I have no clue, but a team that employs a psychiatrist should be able to find the source of the problems for both Kulemin and the team.

  8. Well said, Brent. There is no clear reason why Kulemin has struggled. My instincts suggest he can rebound, though I may be wrong. Until this season, he was tracking the way you like t see a young player progress. But this season has been a pretty dramatic step backwards. Thanks.

  9. Long suffering Leafs fanMarch 15, 2012 at 10:00 AM

    True to a fault,we Leaf fans are eternal optimist when it comes to valuing our Leafs. hey, I put my faith in management when they said:Jim McKenny was as good as Bobby orr. Mike Pelyk was like Brad Park; maybe not as gifted offensively, but better defensively. First ever selection in the amateur draft Ernie Moser had the qualties to be the next Bobby Hull. Bob Neely had the combine toughness and skills of Bob Baun and Carl Brewer together. Ian Turnbull was compared to Tim Horton, but with a little more flair in offense. Jack Valiquette was to be Phil Esposito or Jean Beliveau. The late Don Ashbly would make us forget about Norm Ullman. Trevor Johansen was the defensive image of Tim Horton. Laurie Boschman the next Bobby Clarke, but a better scorer. Jim Benning the next Bobby Orr. Gary Nylund the next Larry Robinson. Russ Courtnall the next Dave Keon, but can score. Brandon Convery a poor man's Steve Yzerman. And, hey wasn't Nik Antropov suppose to be something special that it would amaze us?

    Sorry Mike for the tirade just feeling a little blue about the Leafs missing the playoffs again. Anyhow, like you I had high hopes for Nik Kulemin being the next Lanny McDonald, especially when comparing the beginning of their respective careers. Sadly, poor Nik looks like a lost soul when it comes to his offensive game. He doesn't know if he should shoot or pass, which leads to him doing very little. Maybe with a fresh start next season under Carlyle he may rediscover his scoring touch. But my eternal optimism is wavering.

    If you don't mind I would like to weight in on Reimer here. Read an article recently from a former goalie scout who said that Reimer had the same qualities and make up as Cam Ward. Sadly, he feels that Alaire has change his style considerably. He said that James, since returning from his injury, looks very uncomfortable in his own skin. He's playing to deep in the net and is guessing instead of letting his natural instinct take over, which spell disaster for a goalie. By watching old video from last year and comparing his recent starts, you can see he has lost his confidence. Like most, I do not wish to give up on Reimer to quickly, but history has almost exhausted hope. Cheer!

  10. Your "list" of former Leafs and the accompanying "hope" that went with each is striking, Long Suffering.

    As for Kulemin, as I mentioned, I don't honestly know. Hopefully (there's that word again) he can rebound and play as he did last season.

    As for Reimer, well said. Those who follow this space know my views about Allaire and his seeming impact on both Gustavsson and Reimer. I'm all for "coaching" goalies, but to me, you have to let them play and stop nagging at them. We now have two goalies that have had a dramatic decrease in their confidence levels. (Though Gus has been stronger lately, largely because he's finally been allowed to play a run of games, as I've called for here for ages...) I'm not suggesting it is all on Allaire, but I can't help but wonder what his impact has been- regardless of what the goalies say publicly.

    Thanks Long Suffering.

  11. Nice read Michael. It is very hard to say whether Kulemin's goal production this year is an "abberation", or more a return to reality. Most everyone would agree that with the line of Grabovski-MacArthur-Kulemin, they all had career years last year. To expect them each to repeat those numbers this year, or consistently year to year, would be wishful thinking. Kulemin had a 17% shooting percentage last season, which is a number more characteristic of a top goal-scorer in the NHL. To expect him to stay up in that range is unfair. Mind you his 6.5 % shooting percentage this season has nowhere to go but up.

    Grabovski, despite the line's dropoff in production, is having a decent year, though a bit streaky. He was to become a UFA, but managed to negotiate a new contract with a 5.5 mill cap hit. Basically he showed the Leafs that last year was not an abberation, and he is going to be a 60 pt 2-way centremen in this league.

    So now, here is Kulemin in an important RFA year, where his production and performance will primarily dictate the kind of salary he can expect/demand for the next 3-4 years (all in his prime). What greater motivation do you need to step up your game and prove last year wasn't an abberation?? If anything you often see a player exceed expectations going into a contract year, putting up numbers that can sometimes inflate their true value as a player.

    Your Keon comparison is quite a stretch I think, as you'd have to admit Keon was a consistent 20+ goal scorer (during 70 game seasons) for years prior to that one dropoff season.

    Kulemin is not that far off the season he had two years ago. He is perhaps better suited as a third line winger, and will probably be a 15-20 goal scorer and 35-45 pt guy.

  12. Way to go, Michael, you broke Kool-Aid. Although, in fairness, his finger was broken before you published the post. PLease don't write anything about Kessel until the season is over.

  13. TML__fan - great post. (I admit my Keon "comparison" is indeed a stretch. but I've been trying to be "hopeful" the last few posts and hey, I enjoy talking about the players of my childhood!)

    It's funny. I think we'd all be happy if Nik was an 18-goal, third-line guy as you cite, a player who hits people and plays the game smart and hard. Which I think he can do.

    And as you say, he should be able to find motivation quite easily, as he plays for a contract next season.


  14. KidK....I just saw that after you posted- I'm not sure when it happened. When things go south, boy, they really go south....

    I will do my best not to mention Kessel next.

  15. I understand that Kulemin was tight with Igor Korolev, and that Korolev was instrumental in making Kulemin comfortable in Canada. Consequently, some have presumed a connection between Kulemin’s diminished scoring this season and the KHL tragedy.

    Long Suffering’s tirade is very accurate. I recall those inflated claims, or if they were not inflated then there is indeed a curse on players in Toronto. While cheering for losses seems like a bad idea, a relatively high draft pick will make the summer seem a little shorter than it otherwise might. Scouting has improved over the years and, especially early first round picks, are not so dicey as before. A serviceable, maybe even a star player seems like a possibility at this point in time for the first pick. I have liked the work of Dave Morrison and his staff, who have been forced by JFJ and Burke to work with later round picks, and for that reason feel better to see them accumulate rather than unload draft picks, even later ones.

    Does anyone know what is going on with this year’s college and Euro free-agent pool? There might be another Bozak or Gustavsson out there … After all, might as well keep stocking the cupboard. The Leaf’s brass could still be trying to process the meltdown, just as we are. They are certainly in a tough situation. If someone were to look at the points totals between the last two all-star breaks, I am guessing that the Leafs would be picking near the bottom of the first round. Of course, I know that is not the way the season is counted; however, I am just saying … its fine line between winning and losing. So, how do you fix that without making things worse? That was not a rhetorical question. I have no idea …

  16. Bobby C...I think your last question is actually key- it is both simple and quite complicated at the same time. How does the brass "fix" things, without, in fact, over-reacting (or under...) and making things worse?

    I, too, have confidence in Morrison and his scouting team's ability to locate gems, including in the later rounds.

    Maybe someone can enlighten us about the college (or Euro) free-agent pool.

    Thanks Bobby.

  17. In the vein of Long Suffering Leafs Fan history of lofty comparisions does anybody else remember the justification for the Kessel trade?

    Signing Hanson, Stahlberg and Bozak out of college was supposed to be like getting three first round draft picks for free only much farther along the developmental curve. This allowed Burks to trade two high end first rounders for Kessel. Three years later is there anyone who would trade Kessel let alone Bozak(the only "former first rounder" still with the Leafs) straight up for Seguin not withstanding the other three being further along in the developmental stages? Why does it seem this team is always selling us oceanfront property here in Alberta? Is it because they can't sell the product on the ice?

  18. I well remember, Willbur and others must, as well.

    Did you see the quote attributed to Burke today in the Globe- that he is inclined to keep the team's first pick this summer...but the kicker is this..he is supposedly already "taking offers" for the pick.

    How dumb does he think we all are? Are we to believe his smoke and mirrors so much that smart NHL General Managers are offering him deals before they even know what our pick will be? Really?

    Just another example of trying to sell us, as you say Willbur, swamp land somewhere...No thanks.

  19. I just read the quote you mentioned. Really, why does he always feel the need to add on to his answers? What was wrong with simply saying that they are inclined to keep it? You could even say if you get a really good offer you might trade. Instead no he's gotta spout off and leave himself open down the line.

    Like saying you have no patience for a rebuild then 4 years later of missing the playoffs and not getting better turn around and say your real fans understand that is was going to take time.

    Or complaining that opposing players born in Ontario come in and have the games of thier lives. Then when asked why don't you have Ontarions on your roster then saying we never look at a passport just take the best players.

    Buffon, he should just start wearing a clown nose at press conferences.I could go on but really I'm having a good day and I refuse to let some blowhard whiner of a GM wreck that good day.

    Whew that was close, almost went into full rant mode there.

  20. Willbur...Thanks for expressing how you feel. I don't know if yours is a minority opinion, but I know you are not alone.

    Fans have a right to say what they are thinking- especially if they feel insulted. Are fans not "real fans" if they don't support everything the current GM does? Are we supposed to simply forget his bold "no patience for a 5-year re-build" proclamations?