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Do the Leafs need to keep Kulemin?

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?

17 comments:

  1. Michael,

    I really hope that I am wrong, but I can't see a scenario where Kulemin plays in Toronto after this season. I mean really, why would he come back and subject himself to the kind of demands the staff is placing on him? I completely see him as the type of unappreciated player who will go on to flourish in another market. Exactly like Grabovski and MacArthur, as a point of two very recent examples. The team will sign some overpaid bag of crap, who is good in the room, from the right part of Ontario. Someone who is willing to fight, and embodies truculence. Whether or not the new David Clarkson, that is how I will refer to him by the way, manages to play well is beyond the point to me. The Leafs will take another very good player and show him the door, solely because our coaching staff has no idea how to utilize him.

    Here are some of my observations on one of the players I have grown to love in Toronto, Nik Kulemin. He is always first to begin the backcheck when one of the boat anchors he plays with, turns over the puck. Jay McLement, and the aforementioned Clarkson, come to mind quickly. When was the last time we saw Kulemin on the power play? For the life of me I can't remember a time that a guy who has scored 30 goals in the league, can't get PP time. Kulemin and McLement kill the first half, or more, of every penalty, every game. Kulemin starts approximately 2/3 of his shifts in the defensive zone. While Nik has not lit it up offensively, he does have 8 goals this year, he might reasonably end the season with 15 or so. I consider his production to be remarkable considering the way the coaching staff uses him.

    Its interesting to me that people can see the same game and see completely different things. I see Kulemin take the body each and every time he has the opportunity to do so. Nope, they are not always devastating open ice hits that injure the opposition. But, there he is nonetheless, rubbing the other team out along the boards. On the forecheck he is always the first guy in there, then he will undoubtably be the first guy back in his own zone, disrupting the play. If this guy was Canadian, Don Cherry wouldn't shut up about how valuable he is to the team. He's Russian, so if he isn't scoring, we should trade him, what a pant load.

    I would take a team of Kulemins any time. I'm sure that Ray Shero in Pittsburgh is watching this guy play. Malkin, Neal and Kulemin would be a hell of a line to have at your disposal. Think of it, Kulemin playing with two talented NHL'ers. Instead of Jay McClement and a solely defensive role, to be able to play with other talent. Why on earth would Nik want to stay in Toronto? He obviously isn't getting a fair shake from the team, or from the fans. My advice to Nik, take a one year deal with a team that has a clue. Score, play some playoff rounds, maybe win a Cup. Then sign long term, for good money, and a chance to win more. I hear Pittsburgh is nice.

    For the record, despite more playing almost identical TOI, and in identical roles. Nik has twice as many points as Jay McClement. Nik is also a plus player in +/- on a team that has been outscored this season. I can't fathom why Toronto will trade him, but they will. I for one, hope he wins the Cup for an organization that has a clue how to build a team.

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    1. You're certainly not alone in valuing Kulemin's play the way you do, Jim. A number of people have commented at VLM that they like him a lot.

      While my feelings, as I described above, are not as strong as yours, I can appreciate why he is well-liked by many Leaf supporters. I guess the question then is: how much do the Leafs pay to keep him? Because if they can't re-sign him (I assume negotiations are ongoing, so that, if they have not extended him by the deadline, he would be a trade candidate) the Leaf brass will have to determine if they are willing to just let him walk in July. Thanks Jim.

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    2. Here's the thing Michael. I don't think the Leafs can pay him to stay. What talented player would want to stay here and play nothing but defence? To me, he's worth what he's getting paid right now, and if you put him in a slightly more offensive role, he's worth even more. Expecting him to score, when he isn't given a chance to do so, is exactly what happened with Grabbo, and he is doing fine in Washington.

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    3. I think Jim has expressed the elements of the situation that I only 'hinted at' in my comments... the Leafs can't afford to pay Kulemin what he can get somewhere else because they aren't using him to his potential. For his part, Nikolai has been the ultimate team guy, accepting the role. One has to wonder how his Olympic performance could change the perception of his role or his trade value, should the Leafs be committed to filling the role he has played with whomever at a certain price... I never worry about what will happen when he's on the ice and that's the kind of guy you'd like to keep...

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  2. Michael, if your 'expectations are too high' it's only because Kulemin almost seems to tantalize you with his potential (above his steady play). Everything he does, is sometimes done exceptionally well, leaving me with the hope that he will regularly become what he occasionally is (without losing the steady play).

    In other words, he is now old enough to have 'matured' into the player he is going to be and even if he shows us more with Malkin and Ovechkin in the coming days, it doesn't seem like he has a role on the top line with the Leafs. I still like Kulemin, but feel his salary needs to stay at (or below) 3 M (because that is an average salary nowadays) and because he doesn't excel any more often than he sometimes has 'bad bounces' that are picked up by Don Cherry.

    Nik has a great shot, but it seems to be employed in a predictable manner too often. I'd be glad to see him stay at the current rate, but if he/his agent requires a substantial raise, then I'm inclined to recover assets and see what Jerry D'amigo/Carter Ashton can bring to the mix at a lower cost. Perhaps even David Broll could be 'up for that role'...

    At the right price, I would love to see him stay, because he is dependable and consistent. I think that even a small raise means that we'll see a trade before the deadline (and it could be a decent player and pick, in that case).

    I think the Detroit development model that has been building for the past few years in Leafland, may be ready to bear fruit in this case... it may just be time (organizationally) to plug in someone who has already gained some credence with the coaching staff. I think the cap mix will see a longer-serving Leaf in other colours, where I wish him all the best.

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    1. While the argument can be made that if Nonis had not overpaid for certain players, the Leafs might be in a position to offer Kulemin what he is worth, you raise a key question, InTimeFor62. Could the Leafs utilize a much younger and less costly player to play virtually the same third-line role as Kulemin? Jim raises a fair point, that he may deserve to play on a more skilled line, but that will likely not happen here. So do you over-pay for a grinder?

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  3. I have to agree with Jim on this point especially-- I can't remember the last time I saw Kuli on the power-play. The Leafs are so up against the cap that they have no choice but to move some players. Bolland will be another decision going forward. I like both these players and would like to keep at least one of them. (I'm sure Pittsburgh would be interested and a perfect fit for Kulemin, if he's moved.)

    The problem is we have some promising players (Holland in particular) who could be better than either one but we will never know on nothing but 4th line minutes. I believe in youth on the team. I would like to see the Leafs management make some plans for the 4th line first before deciding who to keep on the other three, yet the 4th seems to be untouchable.

    The team has improved from two years ago but can they truly move forward in the years ahead picking up players other teams have let go, limiting themselves to mostly 3rd liners? We've been here before. Clarkson was intriguing to me I'll admit and I think he'll be fine but there are still doubts about whether he's a good fit for Toronto. While I want to be positive, and there certainly are many positives this year, I wonder if the organization has painted itself into a corner again. C.N.


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    1. The Leafs have some decisions to make for sure, Colleen. I guess this is one of them. A solid player, but because he is slotted in where he is, and the Leafs have no financial wiggle room, someone has to go, it seems.

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  4. I've been saying for weeks that we should move him. I'm similar to you in that I'm a big Kulemin fan. I just think his services can be replaced at a fraction of the cost. Kulemin's a workhorse, and brings size and speed to our bottom-6. I just don't think it'd be right committing to the guy for anything upwards of $2.9m. A guy like Smith, D'Amigo, or next season, even Broll or Brown could step into that 3rd line spot and while they may not be able to provide that same gritty edge that Kulemin has, they'd likely provide a little more offense with those kinds of minutes.

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    1. Thanks for posting, Jordan. This is the very dilemma the Leafs face- do they keep a more veteran guy who may help in the playoffs this spring, or get what they can now in a trade (and replace him with less costly alternatives) before he walks in July, to provide some cap flexibility?

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  5. I've come to appreciate Kulemin's contribution this year -as others have noted, he's strong on the forecheck, good defensively, rarely takes penalties, and is tough to move off the puck. It also looks like he's regaining some of his old scoring touch, despite the role he's been assigned. And I also like the fact that he appears to be a solid team player - no complaining to the media, no agent demands. What's not to like?
    Again, as you've said, it will be interesting to see how he does on the Russian team with some blue chip line mates. It has to be noted that he had only one really good goal-scoring year for us, and then his touch seemed to desert him. The collapse of the MacArthur/Grabbo/Kuli line is one of the many Leaf unanswered mysteries of the past decade.
    Having said all that, and barring an offensive resurgence on Nikolai's part or astonishing skill at center, it's difficult to think that he's irreplaceable - particularly with the number of younger, less expensive guys we have on the Marlies. I don't think it will make sense to keep Kulemin, much as I appreciate his contribution, when we can get essentially the same minutes and contribution from some of our younger guys.
    If he goes to Pittsburgh, as many are suggesting, and becomes a scoring machine, you can pin that on Leaf management. But I don't see how that's suddenly going to happen, any more than it would happen with any similarly skilled player who suddenly has Malkin and Neal, say, on his line.
    Like Mark Fraser, if he goes, I'll remember him fondly as a member of our team. But I doubt I'll miss him.

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    1. You hit the nail on the head, Gerund- good player, hard to dislike, but he may well be replaceable given his circumstances with the Leafs.

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    2. The cap situation was dealt a severe blow the day we signed Clarkson to his 'Lifetime Achievement Award' contract. Throwing huge dollars at physical players entering their 30s is a mistake almost every single time. I only mention it because it sets the stage for this question about Kulemin (and, parenthetically, a few other Leaf players).

      There is no decision to make. It's not a question of how much we might like Kulemin, he cannot be kept. The cap situation defines the outcome. We have little flexibility and more pressing needs elsewhere. Younger players will need to step into his role.

      Nonis should get whatever he can...and the return must be cap friendly.

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  6. I would keep him. He is versatile. He can play third line wing or center (as proved in the Tampa game.) He also has nice chemistry with Kadri and Lupul so he can play on the second line.

    It's just a matter of price. 3 years at 7.5 is about my comfort level

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    1. Price is the issue, it seems, DP. I have to believe the Leafs would like to keep him, all things considered. (Hope you've enjoyed your southern break!)

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  7. I'm not very good at analyzing hockey but it would appear to me that Kulemin has been doing a good job playing center the past few games. Is this a tryout for the third line center job, or showcasing him for a trade while acting as a Bolland placeholder? If I had a choice I'd keep him as opposed to McClement.

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    1. Hard to say, JK. He's been effective at center. We know he can play along the boards. I had not thought about moving McClement but Nonis must be looking at all his options once Bolland is back and sound. Thanks for visiting.

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