The Florida Panthers and Toronto Maple Leafs hook up tonight at Air Canada Centre and it would be major news if Nikolai Kulemin
was left off the Leafs top line.
One of the Leafs best forwards, some say the best, Kulemin started October as a scrub. After a poor training camp, Kulemin didn’t dress for the first two games of the season. After going pointless and minus three in the next five, he was sent back to the pine to watch two more.
Anyone wondering if benching a player will spur him to greater heights should inspect Nikolai Kulemin
’s season log. He scored two goals in his second game back in the lineup and while he would have only six goals before the New Year, Kulemin has assembled his sometimes startling talents into a formidable game.
Leafs coach Ron Wilson eventually installed Kulemin with gunner Phil Kessel
and two-way centre Tyler Bozak
on the team’s number one line. The result is a unit that has produced 19 points in the last five games. The Leafs have won three straight and six of their last seven games and that’s probably no coincidence.
“I’ve got good partners,” Kulemin said of his linemates. “They give me chances and I try to give them chances as well.”
Kessel, of course, provides the flash. Bozak is worth watching because his lower case plays result in upper case results. Kulemin, meanwhile, has been a revelation.
Kulemin’s tool kit starts with his skating.
“I would say I am a strong skater,” said Leafs speedster Fredrik Sjostrom. “He’s that same way, but he’s got that extra little quickness, a little jump in his step that not too many players have.”
At six-foot-one and 225 pounds, Kulemin seems to have roots that reach through the ice when fighting for the puck. His build is perfect for a hockey player, big shoulders meld into a short torso that flows into massive thighs.
“His legs are so big,” said Bozak, who locker abuts Kulemin’s. “Two of mine together are one of his.”
“He’s phenomenal,” said Sjostrom. “He can skate, he’s incredibly strong, he has amazing hands. The sky’s the limit for him. It seems like he’s starting to figure it out. Who knows where it’s going to go.”
Once unwelcome in the lineup, Kulemin is a vital part on the club’s most important line. His defensive instincts are excellent. He is impossible to move off the puck and his skating makes him a fearsome in the pursuit of the puck.
“He’s the perfect guy to have on your line,” said Bozak. “He’ll get all the loose pucks. We’ll turn the puck over and he’s already on his way back.”
Kulemin has 15 goals and 32 points. As long as he operates as the conscience of the top line, Kulemin will probably never be a major scorer.
“Phil’s the guy who has the big time scoring,” said Wilson. “But if you have a line built and one guy is a 35-40-45 goal scorer, the guy on the other side is probably not going to score 30. Twenty-to twenty-five would be reasonable.”
The Panthers are one of the teams the Leafs are chasing to improve their standing in the Eastern Conference. The Panthers have played one fewer game and sit with 69 points, seven points in arrears of eighth-place Boston.
The Leafs remain 29th in the league but are four behind three teams, Tampa Bay, the New York Islanders and Carolina Hurricanes.
The trade of Alexei Ponikarovsky and Lee Stempniak has underscored the disparity in scoring among Leaf forwards. Kessel leads the team with 28 goals. Kulemin’s 15 goals make him the only other Leaf with double figure totals in goals. Mikhail Grabovski
is next with nine goals.