The Toronto Maple Leafs are entering the stretch run of the season and are sitting comfortably in a playoff spot. Toronto pulled 3 of a possible 4 points against the New York Rangers, a team fighting for its playoff lives. Of course there was a few negative aspects of the games this week but all in all Toronto sits almost guaranteed a top 6 position in the Eastern Conference. There have been many storylines this season, but none have gotten a harder time than Nikolai Kulemin. Here is why you shouldn’t write off Nikolai Kulemin.
Kulemin has played his whole career in Toronto and scored 2 goals in his NHL debut, billed as a defensively responsible winger who was Evgeni Malkin’s line mate back in the then Russian Elite League. Kulemin came as advertised, a two way winger with top 6 forward potential. It seemed that Kulemin had reached that potential during the 2010-11 season when he scored 30 goals and added 27 assists for 57 points, all career highs.
After slumping to just 7 goals in 70 games last season Nikolai Kulemin headed into this abbreviated season as a question mark on the Leafs roster, in limbo between top 6 and top 9 player and not knowing where he stands with new head coach Randy Carlyle.
In 40 games this season Kulemin has had 7 goals and 14 assists for 21 points. While many have been quick to criticize Kulemin this season but every point he has gotten has been at even strength. Kulemin has only played 18 or more minutes in 12 games out of 40 and in those 12 games had 6 points.
With 21 even strength points he ranks fourth on the Leafs behind only Nazem Kadri who has 32 points even strength, Phil Kessel with 25 and James Van Reimsdyk with 24. Only Nazem Kadri averages less ice time per game than Kulemin’s 16:55.
Under Coach Carlyle Kulemin has been asked to step up the physical play and if he is not producing offensively he has been strong away from the puck. Kulemin has had 103 hits in 40 games this season, which is already higher than his 97 hits in 70 games last season and his 101 hits in 82 games in 2010-11.
Kulemin may not be the 30 goal 30 assist player he looked like in 2010-11 but he has proven to be a legitimate top 9 forward in the NHL and should average around 40 points in an average 82 game season.
No doubt the red hot rise of Nazem Kadri and offseason acquisition of JVR has bumped him out of the top 6 forward group, so it seems unfair to expect top 6 production from a top 9 forward. The Maple Leafs are a real playoff threat this season led by Nazem Kadri, Phil Kessel and James Reimer, but getting the type of effort that Kulemin brings to the rink every game is what it takes to win.