The NHL lockout has ended, rejoice! After a long-fought battle between the players’ union and the NHL owners, fans will finally see a season. It will be a shortened one, sure, but I doubt many care right now. Once again, the Stanley Cup will be raised and to the fans, for now, it’s all that matters.
As the season finally nears, there are a few Leafs for whom the resumption of an NHL season is a continuation of 2012-13 campaigns that started abroad. While it does seem like a paradox, quality hockey was indeed played – mostly in the KHL. Below are short notes about the progress made by Leafs players who decided to spend the lockout in Europe, as well as their stories from far away.
Nikolai Kulemin (Metallurg Magnitogorsk, KHL – Russia)
Kulemin finished his stint with the Metallurg outfit by playing 35 games. At the end of that period he stands 7th in league scoring totaling 35 points, trailing only such names as teammates Sergei Mozyakin, Evgeni Malkin, Alexander Radulov, Alex Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk and Jori Lehtera – all KHL stars.
Playing with Malkin does that to a player, but like I said in my previous article about Kulemin, playing with a guy who turns you into an offensive force isn’t a bad thing. It builds confidence and adds skills to your arsenal.
His story is definitely a positive one. Kulemin’s become hungrier for that goal (14 goals in that frame), he’s starting to realize how dominant he can be down low and is driving the net more frequently. Those skills coupled with his newly found lust for goals could mean a very good bounce back season in the NHL.
Mikhail Grabovski (CSKA Moscow, KHL – Russia)
Grabovski wasn’t as offensively dominant as Kulemin, but he still played one hell of a season with CSKA putting up 24 points and 12 goals in 29 games and playing regular shifts next to Datsyuk and Radulov.
The big change I noticed in Grabovski’s game is an improvement in skating. Grabo has always been a relatively fast skater, but his turns seem to be much quicker and his weight shifting seems to be more precise, allowing for more accurate turns. Maybe Grabo has picked up a few skating tips from Datsyuk
Leo Komarov (Dynamo Moscow, KHL – Russia)
Since coming back to the KHL from the Toronto Marlies, Komarov showed more offensive upside while still playing his trademark brand of hockey. 10 points in 13 KHL games along with 42 PIMs certainly proves all of the above.
Some predicted his return to the KHL as cutting ties with both organizations but Marlies coach Dallas Eakins negated that view:
“It’s not cutting ties, it’s a part of the lockout. If there was no lockout, this would not be going on at all. He would be playing for our team or the Toronto Maple Leafs. One of the big things is Leo wants to make sure, if he does leave, he can come back if the lockout ends. No matter what happens, this kid is a good prospect, he has worked hard to get to where he is at for a shot at the NHL and that’s his endgame. For Leo, this is about playing in the NHL. That’s what he wants to do. And I think he’s going to push for a job whenever it ever does start up.”
The big part in his progress wasn’t the KHL, but the AHL. He came back to Russia as a more confident player and dominated on a line with Ovechkin and Backstrom. He had a great audition for the North American game and proved he grew as a player because of it.
Joffrey Lupul (Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg, KHL – Russia)
Joffrey Lupul played only 9 games for Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg before returning to North America. He scored 4 points and had only one goal while being -6. Soon after, he returned, with tales that spoke volumes about the culture shock.
Lupul told the story about walking down a street with a new teammate and spotting an open man hole in the middle of it. Lupul went on to suggest this kind of thing might be dangerous, that a random pedestrian might fall in and hurt himself. His teammate confirmed that the accident will probably happen. “They’ll sue someone,” Lupul said. “No, they don’t really sue people in Russia.” Well, they don’t sue people in Croatia that much either, so it’s probably a European thing, but it really does sound worse than it actually is.
In a sense, playing wise, that was a step backward, but also a step forward. After experiencing something he clearly didn’t enjoy, Lupul might be hungry to ramp it up even more this upcoming NHL season.
Cody Franson (Brynäs IF, Elitserien – Sweden)
There was some confusion surrounding Franson’s deal with Brynäs. The agreement was supposedly a full season one, despite Franson being a restricted free agent who still had to sign with the Leafs when the lockout ended. This all came from the Elitserien’s reluctance to sign NHL players who won’t be there for the duration of the season.
As Franson didn’t have a valid NHL contract, he wasn’t required to sign a deal with a built in “out” once the lockout ended. However, if he agrees to a contract offer from the Leafs, he’s free to rejoin our hockey club. My guess is the Elitserien backs down if any serious push is made regardless of the contract.
I’ve watched three games featuring Cody Franson in a Brynäs uniform. He didn’t look all that good. The big ice surface gave him a lot of problems in defensive zone coverage, but he did chip in an odd goal or two offensively. He had trouble moving his feet, staying with and covering smaller and faster players on that bigger ice surface.
Clarke MacArthur (ETC Eispiraten Crimmitschau, 2. Bundesliga – Germany)
I hadn’t seen much of MacArthur and his stats in the second tier German league aren’t all that impressive. 11 points and 4 goals in 9 games played would be quite good provided it wasn’t (no insult intended) a second tier hockey league. By second, I do mean third.
Still, playing with a team called Ice Pirates has to be cool and any competitive ice time during the lockout can’t be bad for a player unless your name was Evander Kane.