Nikolai Kulemin, for me, had the most impressive and encouraging season of all the ‘young’ Maple Leafs.
While he looked a bit fatigued by the season’s end, if you assess his overall progress from last season to training camp and then the six months of the just-completed regular season, Kulemin is one Leaf who kept showing glimpses of what can make him a solid- perhaps even elite-level- player for some time to come.
He could throw a big check on occasion, fight for the puck along the boards and in the corners. Unlike most Leaf forwards he even plunked himself in front of the opposition net once in a while. All this, in addition to an ability to see the ice, make sweet passes and finish enough that Leaf fans can hope he may some day be one of those much sought-after 30+ goals scorers.
So while I liked what some other youngsters brought to the table over the course of the season (Gunnarsson particularly, Bozak and Kessel of course along with Gustavsson in goal) I loved Kulemin’s all-around game through most of the season. His ice time increased under Wilson from the season before, as did his point totals. His plus/minus improved significantly as well, finishing this season with a plus/minus of zero after being -8 the year previous.
The Russians have made it to the next round and I’ll be watching as closely as possible to see if Kulemin contributes to a talented national side. At 23 and a restricted free agent, he has already earned a good pay-day based on his improvement over the past season. Despite no playoff opportunity with the Leafs, the World Championships is now the ideal venue to get noticed even more by Leaf brass- or other NHL (or KHL) teams.
Signing Kulemin for me is almost essential to the long-term development of the Leafs. They desperately need wingers who are potential “top six” forwards and Kulemin may grow into that role. While I’m not a fan of overpaying a guy based on a tiny body of work, letting him go as a restricted free agent in return for draft picks “down the road” would seem at odds with what Burke was doing in getting Kessel last fall- because Burke doesn’t believe in a five-year rebuild. He wants to win now. He needs good players, now.
Keeping Kulemin helps the Leafs achieve their goal of being a playoff team sooner than later.