Just Your Prototypical Russian Leaf

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    Photo Credit: AP

    Nikolai Kulemin isn’t exactly what you’d call a prototypical Russian born player. I’m never the one to succumb to lowly stereotypes but you have to admit that certain countries have a history of developing certain types of players and that solid two way, versatile forwards are few and far between in the more recent history of Russian hockey.

    Sure, the USSR had its fair share of versatile forwards. Valeri Kharlamov was considered to be one of the best players in the world during his era with the Red Army. Krutov, Larionov and Makarov were all legitimate defensive players but their defensive excellence came mostly from puck possession play and the infallible Red Army system they constantly refined. Much like Kharlamov prior to their dominance, and Bure, Ovechkin, Semin, Yashin, Kovalev years after, their main asset was offensive flair and play with the puck.

    That said, after the fall of the Iron Curtain and given the requirements of the “new” league they found them selves in, some Russian born players developed into two way dynamos. Most notably, Sergei Fedorov and Pavel Datsyuk. Fedorov was even known for playing defence if the need for such action arose. That fact, more than any other great defensive play he made over the years, can attest to him being a total package player. Last but not least, Pavel Datsyuk. The player that needs no introduction, a three time Selke Trophy winner, 4 time Lady Byng Trophy winner was the league leader in takeaways for more than we care to remember. There is also a reason behind Datsyuk being the 2nd last Russian player this article talks about. I’d argue that some of the traits visible in Datsuyk’s game are also part of Kulemin’s array of skills. Call him a poor man’s Pavel Datsuyk if you will (I doubt us Leaf fans will have a problem with that) but Kulemin just might be that next player in the ever extending line of solid two way Russian forwards.

    Now, before you continue with this piece, please allow me one more comment. Comparing a 32 year old, elite defensive forward with an abundance of team and personal honors and awards to a young (24 years of age) budding top six NHL forward might be a rash and somewhat unfair comparison, but at the same time it also speaks volumes about Kulemin’s level of play for the Maple Leafs and at also serves as a reminder of what proper player development can mean in a young career.

    We all know Datsyuk’s qualities. Much like that Lebron James slogan, we are all witnesses. Excellent stick and patience with the puck, excels in the faceoff circle. He is probably the best two way player in the game today, a product of his wonderful hockey IQ which enables him to pick his spots on the ice, and which allows him know where to go to be most effective on the ice. I would particularly highlight his incredible puck protection ability which really compensates the lack of size and visible strength. The reason I refer to his type of strength as invisible because more often than not, people underestimate the physical level with which Datsyuk plays the game of hockey and based on his body type, underestimate his strength down low. Why do you think he wins that many faceoffs?

    Nikolai Kulemin is actually bigger than Datsyuk, at 6-1, 225 lb he has the potential to be even more dominant in the corners than Datsyuk is. Their ability to make defensive plays is similar, but Datsyuk has much better movement without the puck, something that Kulemin will improve as he matures as a player. It’s not that his play without the puck is bad, quite the contrary, it’s more of a case of Datsyuk being Datsyuk. One area of play in which Kuli has a clear cut advantage is his shot. Datsyuk has a good shot, but it isn’t the main reason why he thrives offensively and is the reason why Datsyuk isn’t that successful (shooting wise) when limited to the secondary scoring areas of the ice. He compensates that by being a deft passer. Kulemin on the other hand, has a wicked shot and is becoming more comfortable using it. Datsyuk has the edge skating wise and his hockey IQ is higher. No denying that. On the other hand, Kulemin can win puck battles with pure dogged determination and physical edge. One thing I’ve also noticed is his positioning when going into the corner battle. He is almost always the first guy in and makes it really difficult to knock him off the puck when he establishes that digging position. While indeed less talented, Kulemin has the ability to open more space for this teammates with his style of play. Both Datsyuk (171st overall) and Kulemin (44th overall) were selected lower in the draft but what offers more similarity than their positions in their respective drafts is the fact that both weren’t counted on to play key roles on their teams.

    Stats wise, during his first three NHL seasons, Datsyuk collected 154 points in 209 games played (0.73 points per game), he was a combined +22 during that period. He put 297 pucks on net, scored 53 goals and collected 5 GWG. In the first three years in the league, Kulemin scored 121 points in 226 games played (0.54 points per game) with a combined +7 rating. He put 437 pucks on net during that stretch (140 more than Datsyuk) and scored 59 goals which is also 6 more than Datsyuk scored during his starting 3 year period. Kulemin also scored 9 GWG, 4 more than Datsyuk. An important factor to keep in mind is that Datysuk broke into the league as a 23 year old player (2 years older than Kulemin was when he started his NHL career) and while he played a similar role to Kulemin (in his first 2 NHL seasons) he also played on a much more talented Detroit team which included Steve Yzerman, Igor Larionov plus the aforementioned Sergei Fedorov (a quality role model, one that Kulemin never had). To add to that, a big part of his early success can be contributed to playing on a line with Brett Hull.

    Sometimes, a difference between two steps of quality is just about gaining confidence in a set of skills and Nikolai has been doing just that. At the start of his NHL career Nikolai Kulemin was projected as a third line crash and bang type of player. At this point in time, I would argue that he would be a lock for many NHL second lines and would even find a place on some rosters as a first line player. Kulemin’s numbers have been on a steady rise since entering the NHL in 2008. 31 points in the 2008-2009 campaign followed by 36 in 2009-2010. This year he’s on pace for a career high 58 points. -8 and 0 and +6 this year. Compare his 160 shots taken this year to 145 last year and 129 two years ago. Then, figure in his cap hit ($2,350,000) keeping in mind he’s signed through 2012-13, the season in which he becomes a restricted free agent. A guy that can possibly hit 30 goals and 60 points in one or more of those following seasons with that kind of a cap hit? I’d say that’s the definition of a bargain. Not to mention he’s counted on to be that defensively responsible forward on any given line. He does exactly that and more, plus he contributes offensively.

    Kulemin has developed into the type of all around forward that each team craves for on the wing position. His rise on the Leafs depth chart began last season. During that late stretch one can easily win the argument about him actually being our best player. Nikolai will probably never be a superstar in this league but will continue to be really effective if he continues to play to his strengths. He will also continue to be one of the hardest working Leafs on the ice and in practice. There isn’t a fanbase out there that appreciates that fact more than Leafs Nation.