There’s more to hockey than scoring goals, but it doesn’t hurt when a player does put up some numbers.
When Nikolai Kulemin set up Kessel’s first-period goal last night after an excellent rush and feed, it gave him 33 points on the season. Now, that’s not a stunningly impressive number, but he has surpassed his rookie-season totals—with a few games left to play.
I first took particular note of Kulemin in a column back in December, then posted more fully on his development in early January (Nikolai Kulemin—part of the future?).
A week later, I mentioned in a post that I couldn’t help but think about how Kulemin was tracking like a young Leaf back in the 1970s, Lanny McDonald, who took a while to really get going at the pro level.
McDonald was a top 5 overall selection, while Kulemin was drafted in the second round. McDonald arrived on the scene at 20, Kulemin was 22.
It took McDonald until part-way through his third year to start doing the things that made him so good as a junior star. He was a huge goal-scorer in junior hockey, but scored only 31 goals combined in his first two NHL seasons. In his third season, he started going wide around defensemen, using his strength to hold guys off. He began using his outstanding wrist shot more effectively. He was always a physical player, a hitter, and that continued. His confidence skyrocketed as his offence took off.
He finished with 37 goals that year.
I just sense a similar overall arc with Kulemin. Months ago you would notice a hit he made, or him beating a guy to a loose puck, a nice set-up—something different almost every night, but he didn’t always display consistency in all areas. That was McDonald in his first two and a bit seasons.
Now, Kulemin is putting all that together, and has become an indispensible part of what is clearly the best all-around line the Leafs have with Kessel and Tyler Bozak.
Like all players he will soon face his struggles, and part of his growth will be how he handles adversity when it comes- next season and beyond.
But for now, he may be (other than the unexpected arrival of Dion Phaneuf) the most pleasant development in Leafland in this 2010-’11 season. Bozak’s progress is up there, too. (For the most part, Kessel has produced this season, but that isn’t a surprise.)
Kulemin’s size, vision and skating ability gives us hope that we have a young winger who may become a real impact player before too much more time passes.
• As I wrote shortly after the deal was made, I like the Kovalchuk trade from Atlanta’s perspective. Yes, they lost a game-breaker, but one who wants 10 million a year in a poor hockey market. Instead, they go forward with Bergfors, a former first-rounder who looks like a player. Oduya is a defenseman I liked a lot with the Devils. Young Cormier, also a first-rounder, was a mainstay on the Canadian national junior team. Plus, they get a number one this coming June—all for a player who may end up being a rental in Jersey.
• Gustavsson has been a very steady goalie in recent games and was again last night. That’s what management will be looking for next season. All goalies go through streaks, good and bad, but you hope they are good way more often than not. Gustavsson has athleticism, and seems to be playing a more controlled, effective game right now—but the guys in front of him may be playing better recently, too.
• Beauchemin made an excellent play to prevent Bergfors from tapping one into an empty net with about five minutes to play and the score tied. It was one of those “little things” that was a very big play at the time.
• Then in overtime, Beauchemin fought for the puck along the boards, and Phaneuf made a smart play. Rather than just blasting the puck, he spotted Grabovski and directed the puck his way. A nice deflection and the Leafs win against a team that obviously had a lot more to gain than the Leafs did.
• I’ve made the point several times that these games are for the most part meaningless, because there’s no pressure on the Leafs. That said, it’s possible, just possible, that winning these late-season games could set a tone heading into next season. Maybe it’s like a guy who is in a slump and gets a goal late in an 8-2 game. At the time, as fans we assume the goal means nothing because it didn’t affect the outcome at all. But if that “meaningless” goal gives that player some confidence and he starts to play better and contribute more, than it wasn’t meaningless after all. Perhaps the Leafs are in that situation now—and their wins will mean something come next season.