The Leafs reached the half-way mark of the season (41 games) on the weekend. With that as a backdrop, Darren Yourk of The Globe and Mail, the editor of www.globesports.com, invited a few people to take part in the Globe’s mid-season Maple Leaf podcast. James Mirtle, the well-regarded Leaf beat writer for the Globe was on hand, along with Julian Sanchez (PPP) from Pension Plan Puppets. I appreciated being invited to take part again, as I had been at the end of last season and just before the current season got underway. Here is a link to the discussion:
Quite a number of topics were covered. If you get a chance to listen, I hope you enjoy it.
Perhaps the most baffling aspect of the Leaf season (currently a very hopeful-feeling season) has been the production of winger Nikolai Kulemin.
Going into Tuesday night’s encounter against the struggling Sabres, Kulemin had found the back of the net a grand total of 4 times through the first half of the NHL schedule. Kulemin—still only 25 years of age—had netted 15, 16 and then 30 goals in his first three seasons, overcoming challenges including language and new surroundings to grow into a solid, two-way NHL winger at a fairly tender age.
In fact, I posted on Kulemin a number of times over the past two seasons. I thought he would break out last season and he did (though he didn’t quite double his point production from the year previous, which I mentioned here that I thought he was capable of doing). Regardless, I really liked his career arc, and thought his progression would continue into the 2011-’12 season.
Other have mentioned that he may have been deeply affected by the terrible plane crash which took the lives of a KHL team a few months ago. It was a devastating tragedy and may well have (and understandably so) contributed to the young Russian’s slow start to the current season.
Through the first part of the season, his game was uneven though the work ethic seemed to be there. The puck was not going in for him, but you didn’t get the sense that he was hurting the team most nights.
Yet as time wore on, you could detect that even Ron Wilson seemed baffled by Kulemin’s lack of offense, though he did his best to try to deflect any criticism that might have been directed toward his player.
I think most of us assumed/hoped his production would increase and that his slow start would be forgotten. But as we hit that 41-game mark—and as his former and now sometimes linemate Mikhail Grabovski seemed to finally find his game—Kulemin still looked a bit lost too much of the time.
Gone was the assertiveness that had been growing through last season, replaced by, not indifferent play exactly, but a less than focused, determined approach, it seemed.
In his first three years, Kulemin had gone from being a minus player in his rookie year (minus 7), to an even player in his sophomore season and a plus 7 a season ago. He was even through the first 41 games this season.
I remember following his progress as best I could from a distance at the 2011 World Championships this past spring. He earned less and less ice time, it seemed, as the tournament unfolded. But I thought that was just an aberration, and he would show up at Leaf camp ready to roll in September.
But as his contributions lessened, his ice time, not surprisingly, has also declined—not dramatically, but it has been less on average this season than it was in each of the last two seasons.
Then came the Buffalo game.
Kulemin opened the scoring on a Leaf power play, and then arranged Grabovski’s 13th of the season. Suddenly, Kulemin, in one period, had his first two-point game in what felt like forever, and only his second on the season, I think.
Now, we should be clear that we have seen that sense of relief on Kulemin’s (and ours as well) face a few times already this season—almost every time he has scored. We remember because he has scored so seldom that each one has stood out and we now recognize the look. Unfortunately, to this point, those “moments” where Kulemin was his old self (or at least when the puck was going in the net for him) have not led to a consistent surge in production for him. They have more been “one-offs”, if you will.
When Nik belted Kaleta in the third period, it evoked memories of another part of his game that we maybe haven’t seen as often this year—the physical dimension, as in good, clean, old-fashioned body-checking. (Kaleta is an annoying piece of work when he’s not on your team—the Leaf faithful at the ACC liked that one…).
So we had the “full Kulemin” on display Tuesday night. Grinding winger, goal-scorer, set-up guy, a player with size who can lay a big hit.
Was it a one-night wonder? Or will Kulemin (like Grabovski now seems to be) begin to play this way most nights the rest of the way?
Those who follow this site know I’m a Kulemin guy, so hopefully the Buffalo game will trigger a much-awaited turnaround.
I guess we’ll see.