Last season saw Nikolai Kulemin reach new heights. His 30 goals, beyond being a career high at the NHL level, placed him in some elite company for the Maple Leafs. In the past 10 seasons, only Phil Kessel, Mats Sundin, Alexander Mogilny and Kulemin have managed to tally 30+ goals in a single season. In August, our own prognosticators pegged the Magnitogorsk native to lead the club in scoring, building upon last yearâ€™s heroics.Â But with his play of late, he might not even hit 10 goals this season. So whatâ€™s the deal?
His current goal scoring slump has now reached 23 games, and unsurprisingly his stat line has been most unimpressive.Â Heâ€™s recorded 8 assists, is a +2, and has tallied 37 shots (1.60 per game).Â I typically dislike throwing out numbers, but very simply thereâ€™s little to like about his play this season.Â Heâ€™s on pace for career lows in almost every major category, and is set to score 27 fewer points than last season.
I have long suggested that a major part of Kuleminâ€™s problem has been his unwillingness to use his shot.Â His shot totals during this slump prorated to a season (131) would be just barely better than his rookie year (129).Â Including the first 7 games of the season, heâ€™s actually on pace to fall short of either aforementioned total.Â There arenâ€™t many 30 goal scorers who take less than 200 shots in a season, and while its clichÃ©, 100% of the shots you donâ€™t take donâ€™t go in the net.
Its interesting that Ron Wilson has spoken publicly about this problem, and yet Kulemin has registered only 3 shots in his last 6 games, going pointless in that span.Â Scoring on 17% of his shots in the 2010 â€“ 2011 season was something of an aberration, most agreed, but no one expected him to produce at 1/4th last seasonâ€™s rate, or 1/3rd of his career average.
There are some who suggest that he hasnâ€™t had ideal situations or ideal ice time, and thereâ€™s certainly credence to that line of thinking.Â In the first 7 games of the season, Kulemin played 16+ minutes per game 4 times, and only 5 times in the 23 games since.Â Itâ€™s hard to score if you never see the ice, but itâ€™s also hard to see ice if you donâ€™t score.Â Itâ€™s a vicious cycle.
There is an increasing sentiment expressed that Kulemin lacks last yearâ€™s passion, either because his stickâ€™s grown cold or for the more ridiculous reasoning often elicited that suggests that Russians are either emotionally â€˜elusiveâ€™ or lack â€˜heart.â€™Â Apart from being xenophobic and anatomically impossible in general, last nightâ€™s game should have dispelled either errant notion.Â In the third period especially, Kulemin showed the dogged determination on the fore-check that weâ€™ve grown accustomed to.Â The only time he takes a shift off is when he gets benched.
Heading into this season, everything seemed to be aces for Nik.Â He was in a contract year, his playmaking line mate Clarke MacArthur was re-signed to help dish him the puck, and he had the heart of Leafs Nation on his side.Â Then, on September 7th, the hockey world was agog with the news of the Lokomotiv plane crash that took the lives of 44 people.Â Amongst the dead was Kuleminâ€™s longtime friend and mentor Igor Korolev.Â The loss was a lot for the stoic winger to handle, and in turn itâ€™s bred speculation on Kuleminâ€™s headspace.
Though it may seem specious to suggest that the Lokomotiv deaths are the proximate cause of a personal slump, there might be something to it.Â It is worth bearing in mind that many Russian-born and Russian-trained hockey players are playing well below expectation this season.Â Bigger name players with better resumes than Kulemin, such as Alexandersâ€™ Ovechkin and Semin, Ilya Bryzgalov and until recently Pavel Datsyuk have all seen marked decreases in their performance compared to years past.
Of course, thereâ€™s no way to measure the effect or impact of the Lokomotiv crash in quantifiable terms that fit into neat paragraphs, and speculation and assumption are dicey journalistic grounds (see Simmons, Steve) at even the best of times.Â Further, the most important countable data, the Leafs record and standing, suggests that the Leafs are a playoff bound team with or without the efforts or travails of Nikolai Kulemin.Â He will score again, of that much we should all be certain.Â But regardless of the reasoning behind the slump or the results of the club, Kuleminâ€™s job security is only as certain as Brian Burkeâ€™s Christmas trade freeze.