Nikolai Kulemin: Deal, Or No Deal?
Originally drafted in the second round (44th overall) of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft by the Toronto Maple Leafs, Nikolai Kulemin has had an up and down career in his three seasons with the Blue and White.
Signed to a three-year deal by the Buds in 2007, Kulemin chose to stay in the KHL in the first year of his contract playing for Metallurg Magnitogorsk-Russia where he scored 21 goals and added 12 assists for a total of 33 points through 57 games.
The following season Kulemin played 73 games with the Maple Leafs, where he lit the lamp 15 times and added 16 assists along the way for a total of 31 points in his rookie season.
Kulemin hit similar totals in 2009-10 when he scored 16 and added 20 assists for a total of 36 points through 78 games in his sophomore season.
The 2010-11 season was a different story.
The line of Kulemin, Clarke MacArthur and Mikhail Grabovski hit the NHL by storm emerging as one of the most lethal lines in hockey. Kulemin was the beneficiary of the great chemistry, setting career highs in goals (30), assists (27) and points with 57.
For Kulemin, the 2010-11 season marked the first year of his two-year $4.7 million deal with the Maple Leafs, which was a hefty raise on the $850,000 he had earned in 2009-10. At $2.35 Million per season, Kulemin was looked upon as being a bargain, especially when you consider his 30-goal/57-point season.
With the 2010-11 season behind him, Kulemin (and the Maple Leafs for that matter) were expecting big things for the 2011-12 season. Sadly, Kules laid an egg last season, posting a career lows in goals (7) and points (28) through 82 games.
Which brings us to this summer where Kulemin will be a restricted free agent for the second time in his career.
When you consider the past two seasons, they tell two very different tales. On the one hand, Kulemin’s impressive 30-goal effort in 2010-11 puts him amongst the NHL’s elite goal scorers (only 29 players scored 30 or more goals in 2010-11, only 30 scored 30 in 2011-12).
And then you have the 2011-12 season where Kulemin completely fell off the tracks with a measly seven goals on the season. So, the question is, which player is Burke bidding on—the one that scored 30 goals, or the perennial 30-point guy?
Lest we forget, at this point in his career Kulemin has a ton of upside, but he also has struggled to hit the 30-point plateau in three of his four seasons with the Maple Leafs.
At this point it is hard to believe Burke would be willing to offer Kulemin much in the way of a raise, and certainly nothing longer than a two-year contract.
If Kulemin had hit the 20-25 goal range I’d say throw $2.5-$3 million at him over three years, but with seven goals in 2011-12 it will be tough for Kulemin and his camp to make a case for any kind of a raise, much less a three year deal.
When you add it all up, Burke will likely offer Kulemin a one-year deal in the $2 million range, which would be a gift for Kulemin. For Kulemin, a one-year deal would offer him a chance at redemption and a chance at a bigger payday next summer, while Burke could keep a player with decent upside in the fold until he could better gage his real worth.
So, what went wrong for Kulemin last season?
First and foremost, the chemistry that Kulemin, MacArthur and Grabovski had in 2010-11 declined significantly, which caused then head coach Ron Wilson to separate the trio for a number of games.
As such, Kulemin’s minutes suffered, going from 17:19 per game in 2010-11 to just 15:13 last season. On the surface, playing just shy of two minutes less per game seems fairly insignificant, but that is a huge loss for any player.
Another area Kulemin’s ice-time suffered was on the power play where he earned 2:39 per game in 2010-11, compared to a 0:51 last season, which was a huge drop in time and opportunities to shoot the puck or score goals.
Tim Connolly and Tyler Bozak stole a lot of power play time from Kulemin last season, so if he wants it back he will have to outplay both of those players both five-on-five and on the power play.
Another issue for Kulemin was his lack of shots. Kules recorded 173 shots on goal in 2010-11, compared to a paltry 107 shots last season. Once again, that is a huge gap—partially related to less ice-time, partially related to a lack of confidence and/or opportunity to shoot.
Kulemin will have added competition next season from the likes of Nazem Kadri and Joe Colborne—both of whom are expected to make a push for a top-six froward spot and for playing time on the power play.
Additional competition may come from off-season moves, which may include taking a run at forward Rick Nash from the Columbus Blue Jackets, but I digress.
At the end of the day the 2012-13 season will be the most important one of Kulemin’s career, which is just fine by Burke and Company as they will all be watched closely as well.
For Kulemin, failure is not an option, so I expect him to come into camp in the best shape of his career and with guns-a-blazing!
One things for sure, Kulemin will have to be better if he wants to remain a Maple Leaf, otherwise, he may be headed back to the KHL where he began his career.
Until next time,