Nikolai Kulemin – What now??
Night and day. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Call it what you will, but Nikolai Kulemin has put together two polarizing seasons in succession that have fans of the Leafs and fantasy hockey managers alike questioning what his true potential is. In 2010-2011 he was the second leading goal-scorer on the Toronto Maple Leafs with 30 goals in 82 games in his third year in the league, nearly doubling his previous season’s total of 16. This past season, however, is an altogether different story with Kulemin putting up 7 goals and 28 points in 70 games. Why has he struggled? The simple answer lies in looking at his shot totals. He possesses a heavy and accurate wrist shot, but has not gotten it off at the consistency that he did last year, which helped him reach 173 shots on the season (registered 107 this past season). Regardless of shot totals, however, his shooting percentage was down by a significant margin. Since breaking into the league, the now 25 year old has registered a shot percentage of over 11%, reaching up to 17.34% during his 30-goal campaign. Most of his goals came from below the hash marks banging in loose pucks and letting his wrist shot go in traffic. Despite his offensive struggles, which have led to Kulemin receiving the infamous “penthouse to outhouse” treatment that most Leafs players endure, Kulemin still holds promise and looks to regain respect and establish his value as a key member of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Kulemin remained engaged in games in one way or another if he wasn’t scoring goals including registering 97 hits in 70 games after registering 101 in 82 last year, which lends credence to the hope that he can return to form. He was also a +2 on the season, which ranked 2nd on the Leafs and shows that Kulemin’s defensive proficiency is not a thing of the past. Fans cried to have Kulemin benched on nights when his goal scoring droughts extended, while others figured demoting him out of the top 6 would do the trick. But for Kulemin, it wasn’t necessarily just a kick in the pants that was needed. Kulemin had been dealing with some significant off-ice issues most notably losing a number of friends and mentors in the tragic Lokomotiv Yaroslavl plane crash. Kulemin played with Igor Korolev – a former Leaf and casualty of the crash – in Magnitogorsk, and looked up to him in the early days of his professional career when they played on the same line together. “He gave me advice and helped me a lot. He told me what it’s like in Toronto and that it was the best time of his career to play here. No body said bad words about him on that team. He was my friend. It feels bad when you lose a friend and especially – he’s like one of my best friends. I know all the guys, all young guys, I played junior with them. I know everybody because I played in that league three years. It’s crazy.”
Kulemin isn’t the only Leaf to have lost a friend in the crash, but we all know that everyone reacts to situations differently. For Kulemin’s sake and for the sake of th Leafs, one should hope a change of scenery isn’t what’s needed to get him going again, and hope that he can grow and become stronger as a person and player. Will his return see him pot another 30 goals? Perhaps not. He’s always been projected as a guy that has top 6 attributes, physically and skill-wise, but could also fit in as a checker with scoring upside given his defensive posture and presence. Should he be playing in the top-6, I think he finds himself settling in more at a 25 goal and 55-60 or so point pace, but if early indications of Randy Carlyle’s tenure suggest anything, it’s that Kulemin could be used as that third line checking forward, that could jump up into the top-6 in replacement of injuries. To some, that third line is just as important as the top-6 group of forwards, especially when seeing how important secondary scoring and toughness become in the playoffs. While the Leafs roster looks to be primed for some personnel changes this off-season, the team would benefit by hanging on to the maturing winger. Kulemin is a valuable forward, and is the type of player that is important to a team that is eyeing their first playoff berth in nearly a decade.