Despite modest numbers in terms of offensive production, winger Nikolai Kulemin has made great strides in becoming a indispensible, two-way threat that all winning teams require. The young Russian worked up the hopes of Leafs Nation with a dazzling array of speed, skill and finishing ability in various Youtube highlight reels prior to coming over to the NHL, but it’s been his tremendous effort, work ethic and defensive play over here that has won me over thus far this season.
Billed as a relatively NHL-ready player during his rookie season, Kulemin did not disappoint with a sturdy 15 goal, 31 point season in which he showed flashes of a true goal scorer’s instincts and hard, quick wrist shot. His rookie production shouldn’t have been much of a surprise considering he was 22 years of age heading into the year with a strong frame and a few years of professional hockey already under his belt.
This year, we’ve seen Nikolai’s offensive production regress a little bit, unfortunately a feat not uncommon for young Leaf forwards of the past few years. The difference however that separates Kulemin from the likes of Steen, Tlusty, and Wellwood is that he has the ability to make a positive impact in all three zones. Far too often we’ve seen past Leaf youngsters carry their offensive woes with them in such a way that affected their confidence and decision making ability in the defensive and neutral zones. When the puck wasn’t going in the net, we would see them become completely invisible for huge stretches at a time. The pattern was always the same: offensive struggles leading to a lack of confidence, leading to a complete ineffectiveness in all other aspects of the game, eventually leading to decreased ice-time.
You’ve got to give Kulemin credit for finding his niche, the perfect role for him at this point of his young career. He’s been paying attention to what it takes to earn ice-time under a Wilson-Burke management system, and he’s making the most of it. He started the year hovering at around 13 minutes a game and has seen that responsibility bumped to a 16 and a half minute workload during the month of December.
He’s been the Leafs’ best defensive forward this season, making all those necessary, small plays that rarely get you much recognition. He’s winning an astounding number of puck battles down low, displaying a tremendous effectiveness in offensive zone cycling, and he’s very good at chipping the puck out of the defensive zone against pinching defensemen. Just watch how easily he beats opposing players for pucks along the boards because of his ability to effectively use his body to angle players off the puck or as a shield to maintain possession. He ranks second amongst the team’s forwards with 64 hits in 37 games played, to go along with a fantastic 23:9 takeway to turnover ratio.
We know Nikolai’s got all the physical skills to be a strong offensive contributor with a good shot, quick release, strong body and skating ability. The offensive numbers will come… but so what if they don’t? Even if he tops out at the same pace he produced as a rookie: roughly a 20 goal, 40 point forward along with those tremendous defensive skills he is going to be a very valuable piece of the puzzle moving forward.
Happy New Year’s everyone!