Heading into this season the Toronto Maple Leafs had many questions surrounding them: could James Reimer repeat his late run? Was Dion Phaneuf capable of returning to his old self? Will Tim Connolly fit with Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul? Is Clarke MacArthur a one year wonder? These were all valid questions, but the one area where there seemed to be no question was in the capabilities and expectations for Nikolai Kulemin. The young Russian winger had apparently arrived with his 30 goal, 57 point effort last season. Regardless of the other areas, critics were assured that the Leafs could rely on Kulemin in 2011-2012.
While the Leafs have jumped out of the gate this season like a house on fire (10-5-1), there really hasn’t been that much talk about the struggling Kulemin. Most discussions surrounding the Leafs have been centered around the poor play of Luke Schenn, the hot starts of Kessel and Phaneuf, or the goaltending carousel since Reimer’s injury. In the shadows though has been a terrible 16 games for the man that everyone thought was money in the bank. With only 2 goals and 6 points so far, Kulemin has looked like a shadow of his consistent self.
Ranked in the off-season as the 18th best left winger in the league, Kulemin has a variety of skills that can punish the opposition. Built like a truck at 6’1″ and 225 lbs, the 25 year old Russian is not easily knocked off the puck. To go with that great size, Kulemin is one of the fastest Leaf skaters and one of their hardest shooters. When on his game Kulemin drives hard to the net, and demonstrates a great finishing touch.
Although the young Leaf has had a hard time to begin this season his defensive play and positioning has not suffered. One of, if not the most, defensively responsible forwards the Leafs have, Kulemin’s presence is felt even when he fails to score. However, the Leafs need the goals from Kulemin. His play last season was instrumental in both Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur having breakout seasons. With the strong net presence and forechecking abilities that Kulemin provided, both of his linemates were left with open space and time to create offense. As Kulemin has struggled this season so have his linemates. Although MacArthur (6 goals and 8 points in 13 games) and Grabovski (5 goals and 10 points in 16 games) are producing around the same level that they were last season, the opportunities and dominance that this line provided the Leafs on a nightly basis has been noticeably absent.
The silver lining is that Kulemin is getting his chances. On Tuesday night against the Florida Panthers the Leafs winger had four prime scoring chances set aside by Jose Theodore. As many people say, as long as the chances are there then the player will be ok. There have been occasions in which he has created great chances, only to be denied. It has gotten to the point where one wonders about the psyche of Kulemin. Is he lacking confidence, how frustrated is he? On a side note, how does one know if Kulemin is frustrated? He’s like a pendulum, up and down his wing never wavering. #41 in blue and white is like a robot, his face is always void of expressions or emotions, and he never seems gassed on the ice. In my opinion the remedy to this early season slump is for Kulemin to shoot the puck more. Last season he fired 2.1 shots on net in reaching 30 goals, this season he’s down to 1.6. All the sniper needs is one, and then I think the dam will burst.
If the Leafs are to emerge this season and take that next step into the playoffs, they need all of their players to progress as a unit. Like a car trying to get over a steep hill, all the cylinders in the Leafs engine need to be pumping properly to reach the summit, and without production from Kulemin they won’t make it.
The unasked question will soon begin to get asked, and when it does will Kulemin be able to handle the pressure of not meeting expectations in Toronto? An RFA at the end of the season, Kulemin needs to put the first 16 games behind him and over the next 66 prove that his production is an area that the Leafs can rely on.