It’s hard to gauge the true importance of Nikolai Kulemin during his time with the Toronto Maple Leafs. He was always a strong defensive player for the team, but he left many people disappointed in terms of his offensive production.
Of course, there was a brief period of time when Kulemin was finding the back of the net with great regularity, and this is largely responsible for why Leafs fans put so much trust and faith in him.
During the 2010-2011 campaign, the Leafs were desperate for offence and needed to catch a break if making the playoffs was their ultimate goal. (I say this with some reservation since it’s not always clear the Leafs are serious about making the playoffs.) Fortunately, the Leafs got two breaks that season: the arrival of James Reimer as a bone fide goaltender and the offensive trio of Kulemin, Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur, who all enjoyed career seasons playing alongside one another.
While these two breakthroughs weren’t enough to put the team over the top, they hinted at a bright future for the Leafs: Toronto finally had something positive to build on next season.
That was the plan anyway – a plan that banked on Kulemin, Grabovski, MacArthur and Reimer all repeating their 2010-2011 seasons.
To varying degrees, Grabovski and MacArthur were able to deliver, but Reimer missed considerable time and never really regained his form after an errant elbow from Habs captain Brian Gionta rung his bell just six games into the 2011-2012 season. This left the Leafs in a difficult spot, but it wasn’t Reimer’s fault. He was playing good hockey up until this point.
Kulemin was actually the first of the four players to crack. After registering a career-high 57 points (30 goals, 27 assists) in 82 games during the 2010-2011 season, Kulemin’s production quickly dropped back to Earth the following season. He returned to the 20-30 point range where his career numbers suggest he belongs, registering a paltry 28 points (7 goals, 21 assists) across 70 games.
From this point forward, it was the “potential” of Kulemin to repeat his 2010-2011 numbers, not his actual performance, that seemed to define him. As I said above, Toronto was fortunate that Grabovski and MacArthur didn’t falter to the same degree, lessening the impact of Kulemin’s virtual disappearance from the scoreboard.
All of this suggests that Kulemin should’ve been the first of the four players to find himself in the dog house with coaching stuff. Oddly, however, this wasn’t the case at all. He was actually the last one to feel the heat.
We know the fate of Grabovski and MacArthur – both were chased out of town by head coach Randy Carlyle, who never appreciated their individual talents. Reimer’s another victim of Carlyle, but his situation is slightly different. For whatever reason, Reimer remains part of the team without having a clear role on it – an uncomfortable hockey limbo created and maintained by Carlyle alone.
On the other hand, Kulemin’s departure from Toronto was very different. Largely limited to playing a defensive role on the team over the past three seasons with marginal offensive upside, he somehow transformed this role into a handsome reward with the New York Islanders. He managed to triple his salary, going from a two-year, $5.6 million deal in Toronto to a four-year, $16.75 million deal in New York.
In other words, unlike Grabovski, MacArthur and Reimer, Kulemin was able to leave Toronto under positive circumstances and determine his own fate.
Is Kulemin worth that much money? No, but I don’t pretend to understand the Islanders’ thinking here.
Are they banking on his “potential?”
Good luck, we’ve been there and waited three seasons for the magic to return. It didn’t work out for us, but maybe things’ll be different for you.
At the very least, it looks like you can afford to wait.