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Nik Kulemin

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During the doom and gloom of a lengthy losing streak it can be easy to focus only on the negative aspects of a hockey team and I have noticed my last few pieces have done just that.  Today I thought I would take a look at some of the positive and promising assets the Toronto Maple Leafs currently possess as opposed to what they ultimately lack.

Although they are much maligned and even despised by some the ownership of the Toronto Maple Leafs has never been a serious impediment to the success of the team, contrary to popular belief.  Sure MLSE values a profit as most corporations do and yes they charge an arm and a leg for even a lousy ticket, but the fact is the market for all things Leafs is extremely strong.  With the current supply and demand the way it is the pricing issue will not go away or change, ever.

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- If the TSN reports that Frolov could sign a 1 year deal comparable to that of Afinogenov last season ($800,000) are true, then why weren’t the Maple Leafs heavily involved in discussions with Frolov’s agent? He’s a big guy who can win some pucks, plays a well-rounded game and would fit perfectly in the top line left wing role at a bargain basement price. Remember a few weeks ago when I talked about a deteriorating market? This potential signing may just be the beginning.

- The Toronto Sun reports that the Maple Leafs’ Rookie tournament will take place at the John Labatt Centre in London from September 11th-14th this year.

- The Hockey News makes the case for the Maple Leafs as a surprise playoff team this coming season.

- On to the FanPosts. Andrew Edwards (AKA Crazyaces) proposes a solution for these ridiculous long-term contracts, while Michael Cuttell continues his preseason synopsis by evaluating the Leafs’ current forward group.

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    The Toronto Maple Leafs, spiralling of late with a 2-7-1 record in their past 10 games, will to right the ship at home tonight against the Philadelphia Flyers.   The Leafs will also be looking for revenge in this matchup, having been on the receiving end of a 6-2 thrashing at the hands of the Flyers only a week ago.

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      Per the Toronto Star, it appears as though Tyler Bozak may be the latest player to get a shot at centring the Maple Leafs’ top line alongside Phil Kessel and Nik Kulemin, beginning tonight against Carolina.   With Kessel having recorded only 1 goal and 1 assist in his last 12 games, the Leafs are desperately hoping this change may be the tonic required to get their star winger back on track.

      Update: confirmed by am640′s Jonas Siegel.

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        The Toronto Maple Leafs have sent forwards Jiri Tlusty, Nik Kulemin, and Tyler Bozak, as well as defender Carl Gunnarsson, to the Toronto Marlies of the AHL.

        These moves leave the team with a 22-man roster, one under the season-opening limit of 23.    That number does not include either of Phil Kessel or Mike Van Ryn, as both will start the season listed as injured non-roster players.

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          Most recent Leafs trade talk in the mainstream media centers largely around Pavel Kubina and Tomas Kaberle. Just about enough has been mentioned on those fronts; Brian Burke will not compromise in his return demands for either of his coveted blue-liners and it appears that only time will tell. Here are three other interesting to trade or not to trade scenarios:

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            Firstly, an interesting item of news – the Vancouver Canucks have acquired goaltender Jason LeBarbera from the LA Kings in exchange for a 7th round pick. Update: Hat-tip to Sarah, who points out that Curtis Sanford has been placed on the IR alongside Roberto Luongo, necessitating the deal for another ‘tender.

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              The Maple Leafs have recorded their first three game winning streak since March by way of a shootout win (you heard me correctly) over the New Jersey Devils. Joe Sakic Rookie call-up Jeremy Williams made it three-in-three and also sniped in the shootout to continue his tear at the NHL level. Fourth shooter Jason Blake won the game on a sweet spin-o-rama move but I still highly dislike him. Seriously though, his work rate and overall level of play have visibly improved in the month of December.

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                Just received an update from a source. Nothing concrete, as pretty much all rumours concerning Brian Burke’s potential moves are speculative at this point. However, a few interesting tidbits were mentioned.

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                  Williams & White score to rally Leafs to 2-1 win at the HSBC

                  The Maple Leafs escaped from the House of Pain with two points tonight and, better yet, their two call-ups were superlative in the process. Jeremy Williams sniped his second in as many games from the half boards to even the game at ones late in the second frame before Ian White beat Ryan Miller with a seeing eye double to give the Leafs the edge in the third. Fellow call-up Jaime Sifers was a physical force on the blue-line, throwing a team-leading three hits and finishing second only to Jeff Finger in terms of ice-time (a resounding 21 minutes including 5 minutes of short-handed time). Sifers played a role in a critical penalty kill in the late stages.

                  Be sure to check out Scot Louck’s post-game thoughts below.

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                    Almost as impressive as the third period display by the Maple Leafs last night was their ability to storm out of the gate again this afternoon in their second game in less than 24 hours. After a vibrant first frame in which the Leafs should have scored more, the Leafs sat 1-0 up entering the second period of play.

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                      Coughing up the lead late two games in a row is obviously a bit disconcerting considering the history of this team in that respect. But this pre-season is about shaking lingering habits from the former era and, as PPP points out, this is the perfect opportunity for Ron Wilson to kick some of these tendencies. That’s not to mention the fact that tonight’s collapse was largely the result of some rookie mistakes on the part of John Mitchell and Justin Pogge, who played great games otherwise.

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                        A momentum swing in Wednesday’s 3-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins can be largely attributed to a couple of in-game changes orchestrated by bench-boss Ron Wilson.

                        The starting first line of Mikhail Grabovski, Nik Antropov and Alexei Ponikarovsky proved ineffectual in the first frame and rookie Nik Kulemin wasn’t clicking with line-mates Nik Hagman and Alex Steen. The team failed to generate anything in the way of offense until late in the third, when Wilson’s ad hoc lines began to fire, mounting a near come-back with two goals in quick succession.

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                          It certainly seemed like a new era tonight in the ACC as a much more motivated and industrious Leafs team took to the ice and out-played the Buffalo Sabres in a 7-4 win for the new-look Blue and White.

                          Neither team could honestly say they put forth the best they could offer, but that’s the nature of these early pre-season games. It still can be said that there were some promising signs from a Leafs stand-point.

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                          The status and whereabouts of Russian defenseman Dmitri Vorobiev has been an ongoing question mark for Leaf Nation. The robust blue-liner was drafted by the Maple Leafs in the 5th round of the 2004 Entry Draft. Originally touted as a second round pick by scouts, Vorobiev stuck around until the 5th round largely due to weight concerns. But it’s gradually become clear that the Maple Leafs shrewdly gambled on the Togliatti native after an impressive couple of seasons with RSL side Lada. He’s now regarded as one of the best young power-play point-men in his league and he supplements his offensive skill with a solid, physical own-zone game. He’s ranked 5th in the team’s “Top Prospect List” on Hockey’s Future.com, behind Justin Pogge, Nik Kulemin, Jiri Tlusty and Anton Stralman. The lone but major problem being, however, that Vorobiev doesn’t appear to have any interest in embarking on a career overseas.

                          Vorobiev remains Leaf property, but seemingly in name only. The 22-year-old is contractually committed to two more seasons with Lada Togliatti having signed a four year deal prior to the 06/07 campaign; a deal which tripled his initial salary. Fortunately, the Leafs hold Vorobiev’s rights indefinitely due to the absence of a transfer agreement. There is currently no agreed-on date for when a team’s rights to players like Vorobiev will expire. According to Bill Meltzer, “the NHL and NHLPA have more or less agreed to overlook what’s written in the CBA at least until there’s a clear direction on what’s going to happen in terms of a new transfer agreement (or lack thereof).” So how are we to know just how long the Leafs will hold onto Vorobiev’s rights? Meltzer suggests any of these three scenarios could occur:

                          “1) The CBA is amended to include a provision for how long European draft picks’ rights can be retained

                          2) At the point the direction of the NHL’s transfer relationship with the KHL (and other European countries) is determined, a deadline could be set for NHL teams to sign their picks whose rights would have expired under the two-year window specified by the current CBA.

                          3) They could simply continue the status quo — which essentially readopts the old system in which NHL teams could hold European players’ rights more or less in perpetuity.”

                          The last scenario is obviously the preferred one in this case.

                          I should preface this blog with the caveat that fishing information out of Russia is at best tenuous and details of Vorobiev’s contract status remain ambiguous. But according to a European-based scout, the bottom line seems to be that from a personal standpoint, Vorobiev just isn’t interested in the North American game as it stands. He’s comfortably settled in with Lada, whom he’s belonged to for 7 years now. He’s steadily improving, his point totals growing as his career progresses. Vorobiev was originally described as a more of a defensive specialist who plays an awkward, but effective own-zone game. His offensive skills are now burgeoning and he has assumed a top four role on his team’s back-end. One might describe him as a more offensively-inclined Anton Volchenkov.

                          The only way Vorobiev could theoretically join the Leafs in the next few seasons would be to buy-out his own contract, similar to what Jonas Frogren did in order to cross the pond earlier this summer. With the way the league has come down hard on the Leafs’ actions in regards to Frogren, it wouldn’t be easy. It could probably be managed, however, if the desire was there on Vorobiev’s part. It’s not for a lack of trying on the Leafs’ end, who’ve kept in regular contact with Vorobiev and his agent.

                          A source heard during the World Championships that Vorobiev was thinking of extending his contract with Lada. With his role expanding and his name gaining more and more recognition, Vorobiev couldn’t be happier in his current situation. It would require a sudden 180 for Vorobiev to opt for change from his current, stable situation. He’s presently focused on helping his side Lada succeed as they transfer to the Kontinental Hockey League next season. When Vorobiev reaches the peak of his ascension over in Russia, perhaps he’ll look for a new challenge elsewhere. At which point, the Leafs may just be one of 20-odd clubs interested. A different avenue the Leafs could explore would be to offer Vorobiev a tentative contract that comes into effect upon the expiration of the defenseman’s contract with Lada, similar to the arrangement the team formed with now-Leaf Nik Kulemin. Again, the stimulus doesn’t appear to be there for Vorobiev.

                          The fact of the matter is that it takes relentless desire and overarching ambition for European players of Vorobiev’s ilk who must risk the possibility of lower salary (due to entry-level restrictions), demotion, and an often-tumultuous transition into a foreign setting in order to realize their NHL goal. Athletes such as Nik Kulemin, Alex Nikulin, and Nikita Filatov appear to have this drive. Many less ambitious and driven athletes would be tempted to settle for a comfortable and well-compensated home setting. And for some the NHL just isn’t the be-all end-all career objective. There is an interesting and unexpected result of league-wide parity, in that it has not only leveled the playing field amongst the rich and less-moneyed franchises domestically but also between the NHL and Europe. The NHL through its entry-level deal basically assumes that everyone wants to play here, even at the cost of a salary discount. I’m not saying that money is the one and only factor playing into the equation, but it warrants consideration and is definitely some food for thought.

                          Perhaps once Vorobiev reaches his prime in Russia and past the entry level age he will look for a new challenge overseas. The ship may be sailing for the ACC to be his port of arrival, and if I had to bet right now, it doesn’t look like he’s going to be on board.