It finally hit me on the weekend, while watching Nikolai Kulemin do everything but actually put the put into the opposing net: I’ve seen this move before, albeit in a much different (and not necessarily comparable, I realize) time and place.
Before I get into the specifics with regard to that reference, here is my perspective on Kulemin: as I've said before, he was on a very nice career arc heading into this season. We all saw the improving point totals and increasing responsibility under Ron Wilson. He meshed well with Mikhail Grabovski—especially so when Clarke McArthur joined the line a season ago.
Whatever has held him back this season (the KHL tragedy, contract thoughts, being on the trading block, lost confidence, etc.) he has not been the same guy we were used to seeing. Oh, he still plays pretty hard, goes to the right spots, doesn’t “hurt” the team, generally speaking, with his defensive play. And, a bit amazingly, he’s a “plus” player despite his minuscule goal totals.
But even I, who have been a big Kuli booster the last three seasons as he has matured as a player, will not try to claim he’s still playing great. Setting aside the obvious offensive woes, one play the other night was a reflection of the less than stellar year he is having: he was back near and around his own goalie's crease (I believe this was during the Washington game) but essentially stood there, not doing much of anything, as the other team scored. So, he was in the "right" place, but a lack of that difference-making "extra effort" was at least partially responsible for a back-breaking goal in a close game.
Throw in that I don’t think he’s a physical as he can and should be, and I’m sorry, 7 goals or whatever is not good enough for a second-line winger. An off-year this season would have been, say, 15 goals—and he’ll have to peddle like heck these last 12 games to even get there. It's pretty unlikely.
But 7 or 8 goals? No, even if you're Bob Gainey—the best defensive forward in the game for a decade in the 1970s and '80s—that’s not nearly enough. But my thought is a hopeful one: that this is an aberration. I think Kulemin will bounce back with a much more productive year in 2012-’13.
What makes me think so? Well, he has too much skill and he’s way too smart a player for him to suddenly become a perennial 10-goal scorer in the NHL. I don’t see him going the road of Scott Gomez or Jonathan Cheecho, two fine players who were premier offensive talents for a time but saw the wheels seemingly fall off their games very suddenly.
Sometimes, for reasons we just don’t understand, these kinds of 'one-off' seasons happen. I’m sure we can all cite NHL’ers that this has happened to in more current times. But for me, an example I harken back to involves a favorite old 1960s Leaf of mine, Dave Keon.
Through Keon’s first seven years in the NHL in the early 1960s he was one of the best all-around players in the game. A brilliant skater, he was a diligent forechecker and a fine penalty-killer who always scored 20 or more goals a season when that was a key benchmark in the old "Original Six" NHL.
Suddenly, something clicked “off” in the first year of expansion in 1967-‘68, and Keon (left) could not buy a goal. Even though the Leafs were playing lesser opposition (by far) than in the old 6-game NHL, Keon could only manage 11 goals in the newly-expanded 74-game schedule. I remember him being quoted after the season as saying that he was “standing still” too much that season and never really got his game going consistently. He bounced back with three great seasons over the next few years, scoring 27, 32 and then 38 goals. He was an-end-of-season NHL All-Star (second team) at the end of the 1970-’71 season. (One quick aside: ironically, in terms of assists, Keon had his best year, to that point in his career, in that terrible 1967-’78, earning a total of 37 assists—and he was a “plus” player, just like Kulemin is now. Stan Mikita, the tremendous Chicago center on the famous “Scooter Line”, led the NHL that season with 97 points but was a “minus” player. Go figure…)
Interestingly, Kulemin still could end up with a career high in assists this season, his fourth in the NHL. (He had 27 last year, 21 so far this season.) Whether last season’s 30-goal breakout year was an aberration, I don’t know. He scored 15 and 16 in his first two seasons. He turns 26 this summer. He should be in his prime.
I’m a bit frustrated with his play this season, but plenty of guys go through this, for all kinds of seasons. I think he is capable of being a big, physical winger who can eat up minutes under Carlyle. I see him as a guy who can score 25 goals a season—sometimes more, sometimes less. He should be a prototypical Burke/Carlyle guy in many ways, if he can simply play a more physical game- consistently.
This is why I’m not so inclined to want to see the Leafs try to trade him this summer. Teams spend a lot of time trying to find 200+ pound wingers who can play the in the corners, along the boards and front of the net, as well as score goals and be defensively responsible. We already have one of those guys. We just need to make sure he feels good about his game—and himself—heading into next season.