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Kulemin earning more time

I’ve said many times the results of the games right now mean precious little, but as a fan, you still want to see guys perform.

I wrote yesterday that one name I have mentioned more than just about any other in recent weeks is Nikolai Kulemin. At 23, completing just his second year as a winger in the NHL, he just reminds me of the kind of young player who is getting better bit by bit. He is a minus 3 on the season, not a bad number given that the Leafs have given up a lot more goals than they have scored this season. He played more than 20 minutes last night, so he is certainly earning the coach’s confidence.

He is not rocketing to stardom, but he shows something almost every game that gives you the sense he is “getting it” and can be a contributor on a decent team, and maybe, just maybe, be an impact player within the next two or three years.

He is hardly a punishing physical presence, but he can play the body. He can skate, check and make plays. He is becoming a fairly adept penalty killer, it seems. All the better if he can continue to develop some chemistry with Tyler Bozak. He seems capable of being a 20+ goal scorer as early as next season, and being a pretty good player at both ends of the ice.

• I liked Hanson showing some physical play against Hartnell in the third period, after Hartnell had taken Beauchemin out hard. His work helped lead to two good, if un-converted—scoring chances. Hanson has size and will need to play big consistently to be as valuable as he can be in Toronto.

• Phaneuf looked like Leaf legend Tim Horton in his fight with Hartnell in the third period. Horton was possibly the strongest guy in the NHL in the 1950s and ‘60s, but was no fighter. He would put a bear hug on guys, though, and put an end to many potential fights that way. Phaneuf used that method to throw Hartnell to the ice last night.

• We all see Kessel’s talent. The challenge for him—and Ron Wilson—will be whether he can develop into a complete player like Modano did, like Yzerman did. It didn’t happen overnight for them, and won’t for Kessel. But it has to happen for him to be the kind of player the Leafs need—and for him to really be worth the price Toronto gave to acquire him.

• No doubt, as the announcers keep saying, the Leaf “kids” are playing hard. But that should be expected, right? If you’re a young guy trying to establish yourself in the NHL, the expectation is you’re going to play hard every chance you get.

• The Leafs have plenty of guys in that “young” category. Bozak, Caputi, Hanson, Kulemin, Stalberg, Wallin are all unproven, though all have shown flashes of what they need to show going forward. Which of them can become consistent NHL players?

• It’s hard to get past the same old point: who will be the “top six” forwards next year and beyond? In fairness to Burke, he has continued to reinforce his view that he always builds from the goal out. The team is better in goal and on the backline than it was twelve months ago, and that’s important. But where will the scoring come from? The young players will gain confidence with experience, and with that will come increased offensive productivity in some cases. But the team may struggle scoring again next season.

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