Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Kulemin is beginning to show he belongs

When Nikolai Kulemin joined the Leafs last season there was a lot of optimism as well as speculation that he might be a useful 2nd line forward. Well so far that hasn't been the case.

Kulemin is the product of the Metallurg hockey system that has also produced other strong young prospects like Evgeny Malkin . He worked his way up through Metallurg’s system, delivering two strong campaigns with the club’s junior farm team before getting an opportunity to skate in the Super League during the 2005-06 season. Kulemin also skated for Russia’s 86 born U18 squad in several tournaments, including the 2004 U18 WJC.

During the 2005-06 season, Kulemin made his Super League debut and while this young forward was expected to play a strictly supporting role on the deep Metallurg roster, he managed to make a lot of impact and earned significant minutes on the club’s third line, and spent some time skating with future Pittsburgh Penguins super star Malkin.

As a 20-year-old Kulemin led his Russian league team in goal scoring with 27 goals and, really, it wasn’t even close as the next player had only 17 goals. The Leafs drafted him 44th overall.

Last season when he was brought in my immediate conclusion was that he just wasn't ready for the NHL. Although there were some instances of good hockey, for the most part he was invisible. For a short time he was lined up with Grabovski and Ponikarovsky and the trio appeared to have some chemistry. His lacklustre play continued in the early part of this season.

However, that all seemed to change in the past month. He has begun to use his speed and size. He is not afraid to battle for the puck along the boards and has become very responsible in his own end. He is now playing with Primeau and Stempniak to form a pretty good shutdown line. It now appears that it will only be a matter of time before the offensive side of his game catches up to the defense. He is listed at 6'1" and 125 lbs so he can certainly handle the physical stuff. Although he is just 9th among Leaf forwards in shots, he is 3rd among forwards in hits.

It appears that Kulemin is developing into a similar type of player as Ponikarovsky with a physical side to his game and some scoring. This summer he becomes a RFA and at 23 I can't see why Brian Burke wouldn't be bringing him back. He will remain affordable for some time.