Nikolai Kulemin broke out in a big way two years ago. After a 31-point season as a rookie and 36 points in his second season, Kulemin delivered 30 goals and 57 points in 82 games in 2010-11.
Last season, Kulemin regressed in every category. He had seven goals and 28 points in 70 games and as a result, averaged about two fewer minutes per game last season than he did during his 30-goal campaign.
The Leafs decided to put their faith in the 26-year-old forward this offseason, avoiding arbitration with the 6-foot-1, 225-pound Kulemin by signing him to a two-year, $5.6 million contract.
"What happened last year … who knows?" Leafs assistant general manager Claude Loiselle told the Toronto Sun. "Both he and (regular center) Mikhail Grabovski were going into contract years. Sometimes that works and sometimes the pressure gets to you."
Grabovski excelled last season with 23 goals and 51 points in 74 games and was rewarded with a five-year, $27.5 million deal he signed in March. The trio of Kulemin, Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur, the team's consistent second line two seasons ago, combined for 80 goals then.
While Grabovski and MacArthur remained consistent last season, Kulemin had the worst season of his career statistically.
"His production was down, but if you remember, he, Mikhail and Clarke MacArthur were one of the best second lines in the League the year before," Loiselle said. "He hits hard, he’s a soldier, but it didn’t help that Clarke was suspended to start the year (only two games) and they just never got it going."
Kulemin had just four goals in his first 41 games of last season and averaged about a half shot less per game last season than he did two seasons ago. He searched for answers throughout last season, but he never found them.
"You’re always thinking about it (not scoring), but I try to avoid (thinking about it) and just play my game," Kulemin told reporters last season. "I don’t change anything in my game. I just try to think about how I can score in the game.
"Not scoring happens sometimes. Last year there were breaks. I had bad months to start the season. Then I just figured it out and started scoring and everything was fine."
If Kulemin returns to form, it could give the Leafs the depth offensively they've lacked in recent years.
Coach Randy Carlyle intends to use the newly acquired James van Riemsdyk, a winger during his time with the Flyers, as a center. If Kulemin can rediscover his magic on the second line with Grabovski and MacArthur and van Riemsdyk centers the top line with Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul, it would allow Carlyle to team Tim Connolly with Tyler Bozak, two offensively gifted players, on the third line.
Of course, if Kulemin struggles again, the Leafs will need to shuffle the deck.
"Will he score 30 goals again? I don’t know," Leafs director of hockey operations Dave Nonis told reporters. "He is a better offensive player than he showed last year."
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Author: Dave Lozo | NHL.com Staff Writer