Nikolai Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski seemingly had instant chemistry, both on and off the ice, the moment the two were paired together. Â Two Russian speaking forwards, they seemingly built a comfort level with each other which helped them not just acclimate to North America and the Maple Leafs organization, but flourish.
The pair, partnered up with Clarke MacArthur last season, gave the Leafs a solid second line option that routinely outplayed the top line for stretches of the season. Â Alongside MacArthur, both Kulemin and Grabovski achieved career heights in goals and points last season with Toronto.
Kulemin, who plays a strong two-way game, appeared in all 82 of the Leafs games last season, and scored perhaps the quietest 30 goal season in the league. Â He also compiled 27 assists, good for 57 points, shattering his previous career high of 36.
Grabovski, meanwhile, made a believer out of the skeptics (yours truly included) and posted a season of 29 goals and 29 assists, good for 58 points, a career year, and one that represented a bounce back season for the smooth skating forward, who had scored just 1o goals the season prior, a campaign in which injuries limited him to 59 games.
Those totals put the two third (Grabovski) and fourth (Kulemin) respectively in points on the team last season, finishing behind Phil Kessel (64 points) and Clarke MacArthur (62).
Perhaps even more impressive of a stat is the fact that of Maple Leafs who played more than 41 games, there were only four who were a plus. Â Grabovski and Kulemin were two of those four, and Grabovski even led the team with a plus 14. Â Kulemin ranked third with a plus 7.
Delve deeper into the stats and the story unfolds as an even more impressive season for the pair.
They ranked in the top five in powerplay goals on the team, Grabovski second on team with 10 markers with the man advantage, Kulemin fifth with five power play goals. Â Kulemin was also one of five Leafs who registered one short handed goal.
Continue on down the line, and their importance to the team becomes that much clearer.
Both are also in top five for game winning goals, Kulemin finishing second with five game winners, just one behind the team leader Phil Kessel. Â Grabovski, not far behind, finished the year with four game winning goals, good for fourth best on the team.
So exactly what can Leafs Nation expect from these two going into a year where many are expecting the Leafs to continue their climb in the standings and make a strong push for one of the final playoff spots in the Eastern Conference?
Looking at Kulemin, he has flourished under Ron Wilson and Brian Burke. Â A quick skater who is strong on his feet, not afraid to get his nose dirty, and can play a responsible game, his totals have risen every year, with goal totals of 15, 16, and 30 and point totals of 31,36, and 57.
It’s easy to see, looking at this trend, why it’s hard to hide the excitement and enthusiasm Maple Leafs fans and management have for Kulemin, who has carved himself a spot as one of the more important players on the team.
While he definitely has skills with, and without the puck, his goal scoring ability is usually reflective of his hard working style. Â He isn’t afraid to go to the dirty areas of the ice, charge hard to the front of the net, and score goals from just beyond the blue paint. Â Combine that with his smooth skating and his quick, accurate wrist shot, and it makes for a rather potent combo.
There are those who are unsure if Kulemin’s goal potential will ever be much higher than 30, or if his spike in shooting percentage in 2010-11 was a indicative of a fluke season. However, his hard work ethic and strong nose for the net will always allow him plenty of chances. Â It isn’t a stretch to see him as a perennial 25-30 goal scorer, and those are always going to be valuable to your team, especially given his defensive contributions.
Grabovski is a bit more of a curious case.
It’s slightly harder to get a projection on Grabovski due to his second season with the team that was nearly cut in half due to an injury. Â Before the injury though, he wasn’t playing as well as he had in his first year.
However, no one can deny that the Mikhail Grabovski we saw last season was a much different one than was here in seasons one and two with the Leafs.
Gone were the sideshow antics, such as bad retaliation penalties and suspensions. Â Gone was the player who would sulk if things weren’t going his way. Â Gone was the player who would disappear when the game got physical. Â And gone was the player who would cut through the neutral zone with reckless abandon (well, for the most part anyway).
Grabovski seemed to be more comfortable, and more focused than ever last season, and the Maple Leafs reaped the rewards.
A career high in points and goals saw Grabovski play the best hockey of his NHL career last season, a season in which he became an integral part of the Leafs on the ice. Â While Kessel had a great season with the Leafs, it was during some of his droughts where the true value of Grabovski shone through.
For the Toronto Maple Leafs, the pair of Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin have continued their climb into becoming two of the most important players on the team. Â Having them, partnered alongside Clarke MacArthur, has gone a long way in helping to establish the top six of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
While Kessel, Connolly, and Lupul may be the first line on paper in the minds of many, the second line, including Grabovski and Kulemin, will hold the key to goal scoring depth, the dispersion of opposing defensive specialists, and hopefully a playoff birth.