Friday, January 13, 2012

Nikolai Kulemin: Why the Leafs Can't Afford to Lose Him

The NHL Trade Deadline is looming and almost every Toronto Maple Leaf with the exception of Kessel and Phanuef has had their name bandied about in the media as potential trade bait. Names like Kadri, MacArthur, Schenn, Gunnarsson, Komisarek and Finger (OK, not Finger), have been mentioned in deals to various clubs including the Ducks and Flyers.

With all due respect to the names listed above, the only man I truly fear losing from the Leafs line-up is right winger Nikolai Kulemin. The 25 year old might be the most under-appreciated man in the NHL, and a big part of the reason why our club has been lauded all season by hockey pundits for our forward depth.

Unfortunately, Kuelmin has received undue criticism this year for his perceived lack of contribution to the team’s success. However, the people throwing the proverbial mud at Nik can’t possibly be the same fans driving up TV ratings as Kulemin operates at a consistently high level every single night.

Let's not forget that it was widely speculated that Kulemin was one of the key pieces in a deal that nearly landed the Leafs Mike Richards this offseason.  He's a coveted asset for a reason.

His skill set is perhaps the most varied of any player on the Leafs. Buoyed by a powerful skating stride, he’s able to propel himself deep into the offensive zone and sustain consistent pressure on opposing defenders. At 6 foot 1, 225 pounds he is extremely difficult for other teams to manage 1-on-1, and rarely loses puck battles down low or along the half boards. His tireless work ethnic at both ends of the ice has made him one of the best 2-way forwards in hockey.  Yeah, I said it; in hockey. Unlike most wingers, who simply glide in the vicinity of the opposition's defenseman, Kulemin is always engaged in the Leaf zone – chasing down loose pucks, remaining in constant motion, and keeping an active stick. Offensively Kulemin has always been a solid passer and possesses a deceptively effective shot release.

I can understand that purely looking at Kulemin’s statistics this season could lead to frustration when compared to last year's 82 game totals (30G – 27A – 57Pts). When compared to this year’s numbers through 42 games (5G – 13A – 18Pts) it’s clear he hasn’t been scoring at the same level.

A lack of goal scoring doesn’t correlate to a lack of importance to our team, though. The explanation for his slow start in 2011-12 is two-fold. Firstly, Kulemin has seen time on both the 2nd and 3rd lines through the first half of the season. The movement around the line-up is a result of strong performances from players like Frattin and Crabb, which has led to a more balanced attack. Last year, Kulemin took nearly every shift on the second line with Grabovski and MacArthur, both at even strength and on the 2nd power play unit.

Secondly, Kulemin has simply had bad luck. Yes, I know 'luck' shouldn’t be considered a major factor, and over an 82 game season I have a hard time believing luck could have gone against you every night. However, if you’ve been tuning in for the games you’ll know that in the early going of the season Kulemin hit more posts, and shot more pucks into chest protectors of goalies than any other Leaf.  His shooting percentage is down from 17.3% last season to 8.3% this year.  Expect him to split the difference over the remainder of the year.  Over the last 5 games, Kulemin has 1 goal and 2 assists – modest totals to be sure – but a good sign nonetheless that his luck is starting to turn.

It’s no surprise that other teams have taken notice of Kulemin’s play. His versatility is rare in NHL, with the ability to play effectively on any of the top 3 lines. Since breaking in full time with Toronto in 2008-09 he has brought a positive and professional attitude the rink. Always willing to take on whatever responsibility the coaching staff asks of him -- something that shouldn’t be undervalued in a league where some players get distracted by power play time and linemates and being a loser (Mike Cammalleri, if I’m naming names).

With a reasonable cap hit of $2.35 million this season, Kulemin’s salary can easily be worked into any team budget. Making him an attractive piece to teams looking to build for a playoff push, but lacking the space needed to massage a player like Jarome Iginla ($7million) or Ales Hemsky ( $4.1million) within their cap structure.

Ultimately, there's a reason that every rumour seems to include Kulemin's name.  Opposing GMs see a player that's versatile and skilled who is at the absolute low-end of their value.  This really is not the time to be moving Kulemin, both from a value standpoint and based on the dimension that he brings to the lineup.  There aren't a lot of players who are strong in the defensive zone and at the same time scored 30 goals last season.  These guys are a rare breed indeed.

As a kid playing minor hockey I would sometimes get frustrated after games when I didn’t score. On the drive home from the rink my Dad would always reassure me “Don’t worry, as long as you're getting chances, the goals will come. It’s when the chances dry up – that’s when you start to worry.”

Nikolai Kulemin certainly hasn’t been scoring this season – but I hope that come February 27th at 3:01pm, we as Leaf fans can give him another chance.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What frustrates me is his lack of physical play. Sure he lit up Kaleta, but he consistently doesn't finish his hits. When he does that, he is a load....then he gets a little more room out there, then the goals will come. He has the rare ability to scare opposing players....use it.