Kulemin is goin’ for Arbys


Nikolai Kulemin
Restricted free agent Nikolai Kulemin

So, Nik Kulemin is up for Club Elected Arbitration. Seems interesting, and given Burke’s statements in the past about arbitration I’d assume they’ll actually go through the process. What this means is that Kulemin will likely be on a one year deal, giving him one more round of restricted free agency after this one. Not a bad way for the Leafs to hold the cards, but it also gives Kulemin a chance to show if he’s the seven goal scorer we saw last season or if he’s the 30 goal scorer from the previous season (TRUTH: he’s somewhere in between.)

Arbitrations are generally not a fun process and best of all the decision results in either taking the one year deal or letting Kulemin walk for nothing. Joy! So, what is Kulemin likely to get out of this? Let’s take a gander.

The first fact is a simple one. The Leafs qualified Kulemin at his salary from last season (as required by Article 10.2 A in the CBA). Since the Leafs did not go the Mason Raymond reduction route, this would be the lowest amount possible. So count on at least one year at $2,350,000.

Another interesting thing to consider is the percentage of the cap the Leafs felt it was worth allocating to Kulemin when they signed his last contract. Heading into the 2010-11 season the Salary Cap was set at $59.4 million, and the Leafs allotted 4% of their cap space to Kulemin, with the current cap that would bump Kulemin up to $2.8 million. Given that his goal totals and ice time has dropped since that last contract and he’s aged two years, it begins to look fair.

It is more complex than this, of course, and the biggest fights seem to come down to comparable contracts.

The Vancouver Canucks may have done Burke and Co. a favor by pushing Mason Raymond. While Raymond never had the high watermark season that Kulemin did, and he’s two years removed from his best production, seeing him sign for $2.275 million helps the Leafs’ case. In fewer games than Kulemin, Raymond put up 3 more goals, and was only 8 points off of Kulemin’s total. The two forwards play nearly identical minutes, with a slight edge to Kulemin on the penalty kill. In the defense of Raymond, he was part of a much more successful penalty killing unit. Certainly this comparable is a favourable one for fans of cap space.

Chris Stewart is another player with similar ice time to Kulemin who recently signed a one year deal, his for three million flat. Stewart’s point totals are slightly better than Kulemin, with 30 points (15 goals) last year, but Stewart’s special teams time was exclusively on the powerplay as opposed to the all-situation minutes that Kulemin saw. Stewart is also a year younger, and it’s noteworthy that he is also taking a pay cut in salary from the $3.25 million he made the previous season. While it’s a higher pay comparable, the fact that Stewart took a pay cut because of his performance doesn’t bode well for Kulemin.

While it may be a stretch to compare Kulemin to a center, Martin Hanzal’s 34 point season sees him starting a five year, $3.1 million AAV deal next season, and that 34-point year was an increase in production for Hanzal. Offensively, Kulemin should not have any problem consistently outscoring him. The big difference is how great Hanzal is defensively, and the extra minutes he plays. As strong as Kulemin can be in a physical role, there isn’t any doubt that Hanzal is the superior player in this capacity as well.

Also cut from the same cloth is Darren Helm, who recently inked a four year deal at $2.125 million AAV. While Helm isn’t as big and physical, nor does he play as many minutes as Kulemin, his point totals are similar, he plays a good number of minutes on a successful penalty killing unit, and is quite fast.

The nail in the coffin for Kulemin may be the Steve Downie deal at $2.65 million AAV. His point totals last year eclipsed Kulemin and again fits the bill as a physical winger thrust into top six situations.

Unfortunately for Kulemin, if you go back a year the comparables do not improve, and in fact actually support him taking a pay cut. Last year the following signings occurred on the back of the listed numbers:

Jannik Hansen 3 years at $1,350,000 AAV after a 9 goal, 29 point season
Brandon Sutter 3 years at $2,066,667 AAV after a 14 goal, 29 point season

The favourable comparable for the Kulemin camp might be the deal that Brandon Dubinsky signed before the last season paying him $4.2 million AAV, and the argument would have to be that Kulemin is the player from the 2010-11 season, not the 2011-12. The argument would have to be made that Kulemin plays the most important defensive minutes and is a premiere penalty killer. Even then there are very few players who are primarily third liners who earn more than $3 million AAV as a RFA, those who do are often centers (Alex Steen, Dave Bolland) and both players have had greater consistency than Kulemin. Simply put, there isn’t a RFA example that legitimately makes the case for Kulemin making more than $3 million a season.

The best chance for a pay day from Kulemin might come from other arbitration cases. Jamie McGinn is very much a comparable for Kulemin and if he sees a significant increase the same will likely be true for Nikolai. Other cases like T.J. Oshie, Sam Gagner, and Kris Versteeg could push the amount up for Kulemin if he is successfully painted as a quality top six forward who just had one bad year (it doesn’t help that Burke keeps vocalizing how Kulemin will be in the top six).

All things considered on Kulemin, I don’t see him making the $3 million plus that he’s likely pushing for unless his last season is completely ignored. The fact that most RFA forward signings have been so reasonable this year (Matt Duchene @ $3.5m AAV) hurts him. That being said, I can’t see him being limited by favourable deals like Helm or Raymond either. His ability to produce offensively and be defensively responsible would make him quite attractive if he could put it together at the same time. Odds are he’ll land in line with last deal and get a $2.8 million deal in line with changing cap. At that price he’s adequately compensated and given an opportunity to prove that he’s worth more.

If the Leafs can reach a deal before arbitration, I’d hope that the term on the deal would pull Kulemin’s cap hit lower. At this point it is uncertain if he will be a top six player, and as good as he may be in third line situations, a three million dollar hit in the bottom six can be unpleasant especially with the uncertain direction of the next CBA.

From a fans perspective, it’s hard to imagine that whatever conclusion is reached that it will be at a value that will warrant much debate, and even on the higher side of an arbitration ruling it would be hard to imagine walking away from Kulemin for nothing.

All Salary data from Cap Geek. All Hail Cap Geek.