HiR:tb Toots (@warwalker)

Introducing Happiness: Nikolai Kulemin

As I am currently disintegrating  into a small pile of trembling viscous goo under the combined pressures of a ridiculous workload at the office and the insanity of trying to make a Christmas in the paltry few minutes remaining to me afterwards, this is not going to be a long or particularly entertaining post.  Nevertheless, after collapsing like a pile of dirty laundry on the couch in front of the Leaf game tonight, I am moved to tippy-tap a thing or two.

I know there will be some gnashing of teeth in the Barilkosphere about OT loss to Buffalo tonight;  yes, there should have been someone in front of the net there when Derek Roy potted the winner, and I’m looking in the general direction of Francois “Happy Trails” Beauchemin when I say that.  Yes, it’s a bummer to lose to a divisional rival (and its apparently super-fucking-human goalie) like seventy-eight times in a row, but there are bigger pictures to see, larger fish to fry, and more metaphors to mix.  In short, there are reasons to take heart.

Hear me, Leafs fans.  Tonight:

  • On a Tuesday night matchup in late December, in a game that would be their third in four nights, the Leafs brought effort and forechecked the crap out of a Sabres team that has been their nemesis for oh, approximately nine years.  In years gone by, Tuesday night + 3rd game in four nights + pre-Christmas ennui = 9-1 shellacking led by a four goal third period from the Sabres’ team bus driver;
  • Viktor Stalberg potted a beauty and may still have the use of both shoulders;
  • the Monster raised everybody’s Christmas spirits by allowing the Sabres to ring enough pucks off the posts behind him to play the Carol of the Bells.  He also battled through some questionable play to post another solid outing without a visit to the cardiologist; and

It’s the last point I want to really focus on.  I’ve been waiting for Kulemin to break out in a way that doesn’t involve a visit to the dermatologist and I think he is now absolutely poised to take his game to the next level.   If he plays every game in his career like he did tonight, it will be a long and fruitful one in Maple Leaf Blue & White, that’s for sure.  Kulemin was on the forecheck aggressively and with physicality throughout the game, showing excellent anticipation and then following through with the physical effort to get himself into the right spots at the right times.  He was the direct cause of several Buffalo turnovers.  He took a tremendous hit along the boards to chip the puck out and generate the rush that produced the second Leafs goal.  He was also quite responsible defensively and used his body to separate the Sabres from the puck, not shying away from some tough customers like Mike Grier.  Terrific game from this young guy.

Whatever, we could’ve had another point, yadda yadda yadda, but I really liked what I saw out of this kid tonight.  Best game he’s played in a Leaf uniform.

7 comments to Introducing Happiness: Nikolai Kulemin

  • Great post, my man. It is rather incredible to watch this team forecheck, night after night. I was thinking, there’s no way to measure forecheck, is there? Time in the opponents zone, or turnovers, perhaps, but the Leafs have to be one of the best forechecking teams in the league. It’s a pleasure to watch. Dogged. The results aren’t always there but, shit, all you can ask for is effort. And on most nights, it’s there.

    You know who exemplifies that effort and that forecheck? Kulemin, clearly. He’s tickling an entire fan base with his play right now. Using his body, using what looks nothing short of tremendous speed. Again, fun to watch. And he’s doing it while playing with Wayne Primeau and, if I’m not mistaken, Lee Stempniak. Make do. Play hard. He’s got a bright future. I like that Ron Wilson is rewarding him with more ice time. I’d like to see him play on the top two lines. At perhaps Jason Blake’s expense. I’m a Blake apologist, but Kulemin is the future.

    Last but not least: fuck Ryan Miller. This is a recording.

  • Though it sounds wrong, I’ve been on the Kulemin train since the beginning. I was incredibly excited about his arrival and had a hunch his defensive, two-way play was his calling card and much needed asset on a “rebuilding” Toronto team. You rightly brought up the somewhat surprising amount of tenacity and energy to a Maple Leafs team that doesn’t quite bring it on those early to mid-week games. In any case, I think Kulemin has found his calling card and is absolutely brimming with confidence. A year removed from his rookie season only shows further evidence to exercise patience to any young player and allow time to adjust into the NHL. I’m not sure if Kulemin can score enough goals to see regular time on the first two lines (not that he doesn’t have he skill set per se), but without the added pressure of scoring all the time when he was thrust onto the first line in his rookie season and earlier this year, Kulemin really shows why he was so highly regarded by luminaries such as Dave King and Evgeni Malkin.

  • I too have been on board the whole Kulemin experience thing since before he arrived in the NHL. I am more than pleased to see his speed and defensive awareness are growing more and more evident (as I was certain they would with more ice time in such situations).

    This kid was the defensive conscience for Malkin and Ovechkin on the world juniors outfits they played on. He was a line mate of Malkin’s on a good Maginitigorsk outfit. He’s also a solid scorer in his own right.

    To those that are unsure if his hands are solid enough to produce goals in the NHL, I direct you to the ever impressive number – the SHOT TOTAL: Kulemin has 50 shots. He has a 12% shooting percentage. He has played 4 fewer games than the Leafs have total this season, so he could have 54 shots in 37 games, which is still fairly low.

    If he was playing on the 2nd line, we can imagine him having 74 shots, which is really just 2 shots a game, a small increase from his 1.47 shots per game right now. 74 shots would translate to 9 goals, and being on pace for 20 goals. That’s as a 2nd line forward in his 2nd year in the NHL, following up on a campaign that saw him pot 15.

    Now – the fact that he’s playing on the 3rd line is wonderful, because it’s only helping him increase his NHL confidence. His defensive game is improving night to night. He might never be promoted into the top 6, but if he is, I’d be all in favour.

    The Leafs MAY need to let the likes of Poni, Stajan, and Stempniak walk after this season, so Kulemin can be promoted into Poni’s top 6 spot, Bozak can be raised to Stajan’s, and Stålberg can move up to Stempniak’s position. Mayers needs to be let go so Hanson can play his role, and then things will be moving in the right direction for the Leafs.

  • kidkawartha

    You should pick up and read “King of Russia” for some insight into Kuleimin’s development, jr. Both Yuskeivich and Korolev played for Dave King’s RSL winning team that year, too.

  • JM (stucky)

    Hear, hear.

    The more I watch Kulemin, the more I realize and appreciate what he’s bringing to the Leafs this year. Strong forechecking, tenacity, good two-way play and some goals here and there. It would be great if he could continue developing his offensive game, but no question at this rate he will be a valuable NHL player and a favourite for serious Leaf fans like us for years to come.

    Always nice to see a new blog entry from you as well!

    • @JM: Aww, I’m blushing.
      @ kidk : I went looking for that book during one of my more recent XMAS shopping sojourns, actually but…no dice. Either Saint Nick brings me a copy or it’s Amazon.ca for me…
      @eye: I’m of two minds about RW rewarding him for his play; on the one hand, I like that the coach is recognizing and rewarding responsible and energetic play that (presumably) fits the role he’s been asked to play in the system. On the other hand, though, I’m not terribly thrilled with the perpetual “lines in a blender” approach that Wilson seems to favour. I worry that there are benefits that consistency produces that we may be foregoing as a result, especially where some younger players are concerned. I don’t know, I haven’t sorted that one out in my own mind completely yet.
      @bkblades & steve: Defensive responsibility + offensive skill playing some up-tempo minutes and causing havoc in the other guys’ zone – what’s not to like, right?

  • peteypuck

    If “blender” is Kulemin, Stahlberg et all heading straight for the net at warp speed 9, and arriving in a real bad mood, bring it on. It’s not like these kids have cement hands. Never mind RW, someone already has coached them well. They play great without the puck.
    Watch the team Canada Juniors. They always damn the torpedoes and come in crimson waves. It is the best hockey to watch as well.