Those who visit VLM on a somewhat regular basis may know my thoughts on Nikolai Kulemin: three years ago, I was fond of saying that he was one of my favourite Leafs. I then believed his career arc (even setting aside that heady 30-goal season) was progressing nicely. He seemed to be getting better every year, played a pretty strong all-around game and generally was a workmanlike Leaf.
Beginning in 2011’-12, I thought there was slippage in his game. Last season was, for me, “OK”, and only that. I recognize that others felt and still feel differently, and they have raised that with me here at VLM. They see Kuli as a physical winger who wins battles and can be helpful to the Leaf cause even if he does not produce a ton of points.
This season, to me at least, has been much of the same—the occasional offensive highlight but not a lot of point production, though he has played a reasonably steady game for the most part.
My biggest thing about Kulemin is that, for his size and given he does not bring much offense, I feel he should be even more physical than he is, including more of those crunching open ice checks that we do see him deliver on occasion. But maybe that’s just me. It could be my expectations are too high.
Regardless of where you sit vis-a-vis Kulemin in terms of his actual performance, it would seem, based on various published reports, that the Leafs have a decision to make about their now most tenured player. The Russian veteran is on the cusp of free agency, which of course is great for the player himself but places the team (in this case, the Leafs) in a bit of a difficult spot. If they keep him and the club is bounced in the playoffs, and then he walks in the summer, what will Leaf fans say? There will be more than a bit of second-guessing that he should have been dealt when we could still get something (futures; some sort of draft pick or prospect) for him.
My question today: rather than wait until July and criticize the Leaf brass, what are we thinking right now that we should do with Kulemin? There are always cap considerations with a player who, if he stays and re-signs, will cost plenty. How much should the Leafs play a reasonably effective third-line winger who scores only on occasion?
On the other hand, he is a longtime Leaf, and has done nothing but be a generally hard-working performer for this organization since the day he arrived in 2008. He doesn’t take a lot of bad penalties. He seems by all accounts to be a team guy. He was a minus 9 in the playoffs against the Bruins last spring, but given that it was his first ever NHL playoff series, I’m not sure if that tells us anything.
At 27, he is in the prime of his career, one would think, and importantly, has been a durable player in his time in Toronto. With 400 NHL games behind him, and more before that in the KHL, he brings a lot of the on (and off)-ice qualities any contending team would like to get their hands on.
I guess the question is: are we one of those teams? We already have Kulemin. We can decide to keep him. We don’t have to trade him. Do we believe the Leafs are contenders right now and if so, do you move a guy for uncertain “futures” if you really think we can do something in the playoffs in April and May?
Some have commented that he would look very good elsewhere (e.g. Pittsburgh) with a different coach and playing a different role. I don't know about that, but the “Kulemin question” does seem to be out there.
How do you see this one?