MLHS continues its’ Player Reviews with the longest-serving member of the Toronto Maple Leafs, right winger Nikolai Kulemin. The 26-year-old Magnitogorsk, Russia native had a bounce back season, recording seven goals and 16 assists for 23 points while playing in 48 regular season games. He struggled through seven playoff games, recording only one assist. But it was Kulemin’s ability to do yeoman’s work in the defensive zone that made the Leafs a winner.
A testament to his ability to play in all situations, Kulemin bounced around the Leafs top 9 this season. At the beginning of the year, he skated mostly on a line with Jay McClement and Mikhail Grabovski. He also rode shotgun for Nazem Kadri and Joffrey Lupul when the latter was healthy, but found himself back with Grabovski and new addition James van Riemsdyk for most of the playoffs. He started out hot, recording 12 points in the first 20 games of the season, before petering out with 12 points in his final 35 games, including the playoffs.
The 2012-13 Leafs were a team that played without the puck a lot, evidenced by their -6 differential in shots per game this season. Coach Randy Carlyle relied upon Kulemin to line up in defensive situations, which he took to with aplomb. He played against the Eastern Conference’s best players, registering the highest Corsi Quality of Competition score of any player in the NHL with 30+ games played. He played a nightmarishly difficult 16:44 minutes he each night, because no one else on the Leafs could.
He quickly cemented himself in a shutdown role with his exemplary play on the league’s second best penalty kill. Of the 803:25 minutes of ice time Kulemin played this season (sixth most on the Leafs), roughly 1/8th of it was spent 4 on 5. He was second among Leaf forwards in shorthanded ice time per game, only behind McClement.
He was also second on the team in takeaways, with 30, while surrendering only 13 giveaways. No Leaf had a ratio better than his. He also led all Leaf forwards in blocked shots, with 47. I mention these to highlight the development of his game: he’s never led the Leafs in any of these categories until this season, or been particularly strong in them. His willingness to evolve his game and respond to his coach made him one of Carlyle’s favourites, and a mainstay in the last minute of play.
Offensively, Kulemin had one of the stranger statistical seasons in recent memory. He registered zero points on the power play, zero on the penalty kill, and scored no game winning goals. He only recorded one point, a secondary assist, during a relatively quiet playoff performance. But he saw next to no time on power play, and took twice as many shifts in the defensive zone than he did in the offensive zone.
Russian players are often unfairly slurred for being enigmatic offensive dynamos, and Kulemin’s career sadly does nothing to dispel the myth. He led the now-defunct Russian Super League in goal scoring in 2006-07. He had a tremendous 2010-11 season in Toronto with 30 goals and 57 points. He also excelled during the lockout playing in a scorer’s role, putting up 38 points in 36 games with Metallurg. Yet he’s had managed a meagre 14 goals the past two seasons in Toronto, and is often viewed as having not lived up to expectations because of it.
But until he lines up with a legitimate offense-driving centre and receives more favourable matchups, it is unrealistic to expect that Kulemin can be relied upon to provide anything beyond complementary scoring at this stage of his career. He was still the seventh best scorer on the Leafs this year, when Carlyle never intended for that to be his job.
So when I recall Nikolai Kulemin’s 2012-13 season, I view it as rather successful. He provided the offense of a top six forward when used like a grinder, and helped to drag the Toronto Maple Leafs back to respectability.
Plays of the Year:
Kulemin tallied 122 hits in the regular season and added another 29 in the playoffs, but none were more memorable than this one. Just trucks McQuaid after the whistle.
Top shelf snipe on the Bruins in the regular season.
“And the roof is caving in on the Lightning!” is still one of my favourite calls from the season.
RATE THIS PLAYER: Out of 10, rate Nikolai Kulemin’s season relative to his role, opportunity and the expectations for the player entering the season. Be sure to back it up.