Mar 1, 2014; Montreal, Quebec, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs left wing Nikolai Kulemin (41) before the game against Montreal Canadiens at Bell Centre. Mandatory Credit: Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

A Look at the Nikolai Kulemin, Toronto Maple Leafs Breakup


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.

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Tags: Brian Gionta Clarke MacArthur James Reimer Mikhail Grabovski Nikolai Kulemin Randy Carlyle Toronto Maple Leafs

  • Andrew

    I think it’s unfair to say that Carlyle and Carlyle alone created the situation with Reimer. The Leafs (Leiwicke, Nonis) took advantage of the fact that Bernier was stuck behind one of the league’s premier goaltenders in Jonathan Quick and made a great deal to land a goalie with much more upside than Reimer. Carlyle did not bring in Bernier. After bringing Bernier in, Carlyle was in a position in which he had strong competition between two goaltenders and Bernier won the job. Perhaps it was unreasonable to expect Reimer to play as well as he did in 2010 – 11, I think his concussion and diminished play after returning is more of an illusory correlation than anything else. Much of Reimer’s success comes form his raw athleticism and his unwillingness to give up on any puck, but at the end of the day, he lacks technical skill and raw athleticism and desire can only take you so far. I like Reimer – though his recent antics are ballsy for a backup goaltender and his wife should make her opinions less publicly known – and I hope he finds success somewhere else, but the fact is, he got beaten by a better goaltender.

    • Stan Smith

      I agree Andrew. I do remember an interview earlier in the season when Carlyle was actually answering questions before the now famous “he was ok” quote, where Carlyle said Reimer needed to work on his positioning, and rebound control. It was obvious watching him play when Bernier got hurt. He was still lacking in those areas. I like Reimer and feel that he was unjustly blamed for the game 7 loss to the Bruins but you could see the calmness Bernier brought to the net. I disagree with the article in that if Reimer does start the season with the leafs it will be with a clear roll, back-up goalie.

  • Isles5

    This Islanders thinking is simple. After being spurned by nearly every UFA they attempted to sign to improve their team (Vanek, Boyle, Iginla, Richards, etc.), often after offering more money and/or term, they knew they needed to overpay to add legitimate NHL talent. The cost of bringing in Grabovski, a legit 2nd line center, was also signing Kulemin. The money isn’t a big issue for them because they are nowhere near the cap. By acquiring two forwards they now have a glut of talented NHL forwards and can trade one (or more) for a top four defenseman to fill that hole. They can also unload their surplus of forwards for draft picks that Snow can use to either A) acquire a dman or B) move back into the first round next year after trading the pick in the original Vanek deal last October. It also gives the Islanders incredible depth down the middle with John Tavares, Grabovski, Frans Nielsen, Casey Czikas, Brock Nelson, and Ryan Strome… a recipe any team needs to win these days.

    Once the Islanders start to win they will not have to dramatically overpay to acquire UFA’s, but for now they need to and if that is the cost of improving the team so be it. The money won’t really hurt them, even though it was an overpayment, and the term was reasonable on both.

  • Bonny Hunter

    If the writer isn’t aware of Garth Snow’s ineptness he should familiarize himself with what has been clearly a catastrophic series of moves. He trades Moulsen and a first round and fifth round pick for a guy who had publicly stated he wanted to experience free agency once in his career and was looking forward to it. Moulsen subsequently was moved for picks and then returned to Buffalo. Darcy Regier fleeced Snow so completely and Snow accorded himself so poorly that the deal still resounds in the memory banks. He signed Di Pietro to a 15 year deal which alone should have ushered him out the GM’s door and into the job of selling hotdogs to the customers, something we think he might just be able to pull off. NYI will pay Di Pietro 1.5M per year until 2028/09. Wow. Clever eh? Players won’t lay for him. Mark Streit wouldn’t stay and others have declined to go there. The Island is a hotbed of hockey and the rivalries with the local teams terrific. But Snow has wittled down the available draft picks by constantly gambling on pending free agents whom he ultimately never lands. So like ANDREW said below the Kulemin Grabovski deals were in part desperation and in part stupidity. Except those gents come from Carlyle’s seemingly vapid insisitence that offensive hockey is…well…offensive. These two Russians can cause mayhem for opponents and I hope they do just that. Carlyle needs to see his errors and NYI fans deserve better. Much better.

    • alansmithee88

      Snow’s done a lot wrong. But almost NONE of what you’ve listed fits that profile. Vanek was a clear upgrade over Moulson and was worth the gamble. Where he screwed up was the return for Vanek at the trade deadline. DiPietro, before the injuries, was on his way to becoming an All-Star goalie. Streit was useful for his time with the team, but at this point he’s on the wrong side of 35 with declining numbers. Giving him the same contract the Flyers given him would’ve been worse than letting him go. And for the Isles’ failure to get out of the basement for more than one season, the end result is one of the deepest prospect pools in the sport. Hardly a sign of whittling down draft picks.

      You want to get on Snow’s case? How about the cookie cutter third-pair defensemen he tries trotting out as starters like Strait, Hickey, and Carkner? How about giving up on Nino Niederreiter for what turned out to be a redundant part in Cal Clutterbuck? Or failing to recognize that Evgeni Nabokov was losing his edge as a starter and that neither Kevin Poulin nor Anders Nilsson was going to get to that point?

      If you’re going to crack wise, Bonny, at least know what the hell you’re talking about.

  • jimithy

    Kuleman succumbed to the Leaf byline-’only play well enough to keep the fools happy’. Watch Kuleman show his real talents with the Islanders. The guy is a force that the Leafs never reckoned with when they should have but will have to now, for all the wrong reasons.

  • flintonrice

    Kulemin will have a great year with the NYI.

    He’s a very good player and wasn’t given a chance in Toronto. To all the fans that said that Kulemin sucks, be prepared to be very wrong….