Sunday, October 28, 2012

Grabovski and Kulemin: A Search for Optimism during a Lockout that’s Providing Little

The NHL Lockout negotiations haven’t provided much reason for optimism over the past week. Gary Bettman and the League have announced the cancellation of all scheduled November games, forcing me to continue filling my painfully empty weeknights with Friends re-runs and 2 episodes of Dancing with the Stars (ABC, why can’t they perform and have eliminations in a single hour?)

It’s unlikely the Lockout deep freeze will be lifted any time soon, with early December now representing the de facto deadline, when the entire season will be on the line. Through all the darkness, we at BCP are trying to find some reasons to be optimistic, and we’re starting with the Leafs' secondary scoring.  

There was a time, not that long ago, when Toronto boasted one of the best second lines in hockey. The trio of Mikhail Grabovksi, Nikolai Kulemin, and Clarke MacArthur was considered a formidable grouping, capable of facing the other team’s top scorers while also providing consistent offensive support themselves. Then last season came. All 3 seemed to enter into concurrent slumps that lasted for much of the year.

A comparison of their collective numbers in 2010-11 versus 2011-12 shows the stark difference in production:


G: 80 
A: 97 
Points: 177 
+/-: 18 
SOG: 566


G: 50 
A: 72 
Points: 122 
+/-: 5 
SOG: 418

The drop-off between the two seasons is quite pronounced; a 39% decline in goals, 25% in assists, and 26% decrease in the number of shots on goal. That level of year-over-year offensive depletion from core players happening almost in unison is difficult for any team to replace, even with the career years put forth by Kessel and Lupul. It leaves us to wonder if the 7th or 8th spot in the conference would have been attainable had the second line's production only dipped say 5-10%.

Much ink has already been spilled across the inter-web with speculation on what exactly precipitated this collective down season. Grabovski’s shot total dropped from 239 to 163, perhaps indicating an increased focus on his defensively responsibilities and less time spent initiating offense. Whatever the case he clearly wasn’t putting pucks on net nearly as frequently. 

Kulemin is a more interesting case, since his decline was the most dramatic. Going from a 30 goal scorer at the age of 26, down to only 7 last season. There are a number of in depth posts that go into detail as to why this might have happened, most notably, Leafs Nation's two part post here. The general theory being that he was the victim of terrible luck and waning confidence. His shooting percentage of 6.5% was historically low, and it was felt even more keenly when compared against the career high 17.3% of 2010-11.

So where does the optimism come from? Well, for me it’s a combination of a few factors, all of which seem to, at least directionally, point towards a more productive second line when compared to a year ago.

Firstly, the team added former Flyer winger (err... centerman) James Van Riemsdyk in the offseason in a trade for Luke Schenn. It remains to be seen what exactly JVR will mean to Toronto in terms of production (Curt plays Nostradamus here), however, we know that Burke didn’t make the deal so that he could play in the bottom six. JVR is an undeniably talented, big-bodied, high potential forward who will create internal competition on the top 6. This is no doubt a good thing, forcing players like Kulemin and MacArthur to perform or risk being relegated to the 3rd line and off of the second power play unit.

Secondly, Ron Wilson has been ousted in favour of Randy Carlyle. A new coach will mean new opportunities and fresh starts for all of the forwards. Players that may have become complacent under Wilson will once again be forced to compete for ice time and their position on the depth chart. Wilson often utilized Grabovski and Kulemin in defensive line matching at home; however, under this regime they may be given more offensive duties. Furthermore, Wilson strongly felt that Mikhail and Phil couldn’t play together due to their overlapping skill sets and general preference to play with the puck on their stick. Perhaps Carlyle re-imagines all of these pre-conceived notions, resulting in new opportunities.

Lastly, the lockout has forced many players into the awkward scenario of having too much free time. They can choose to participate in camps with other players, such as Bio Steel in Aurora, Ontario. Others are simply skating at local arenas and using the gym to stay in shape. While a growing number are looking both in North America and across the pond for leagues in which to play. Alas, all leagues are not created equal.

The SEL, KHL, and Swiss Elite League provide a serviceable level of competition, allowing players to stay well conditioned and experience a level of play at least nearing that of the NHL. That said, a number of players have fallen into less than ideal destinations, such as Columbus forward Brandon Dubinsky, playing on the Alaska Aces of the ECHL, or Alexander Semin playing in Russia’s minor league for his hometown Sokol Krasnoyarsk.

Looking at the lockout plans for Kulemin and Grabovski, fans couldn’t ask for a better situation. Kulemin is currently playing alongside Hart Trophy winner (and fearless leader of my Fantasy Keeper team) Evgeni Malkin and Sergei Gonchar on the Metallurg Magnitogorsk of the KHL. Where he has posted an impressive 6 goals and 3 assists in 14 games, while shooting 40 times. Yes, it is the KHL, and it’s only been 14 games, but the fact that he is producing and shooting regularly is a positive sign.

Grabovksi signed on to play with CSKA Moscow, playing alongside Detroit’s Pavel Datysuk. In 12 games this season he has 5 goals and 3 assists. Both players are getting the opportunity to play in one of the best leagues in Europe, in addition to playing nightly under the tutelage of uber talents Malkin and Datysuk.

Consistent production from the second line was an area of concern for the Maple Leafs last season. But, the offseason deal that landed JVR, Randy Carlyle taking over as coach and bringing with him new opportunity, and the KHL lockout destinations for Grabovksi and Kulemin provide a certain level of optimism for the future.

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