Young Leafs: Nikolai Kulemin's Opening Act
It's certainly been an eventful off-season for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The organization has seen major changes on just about every front. It began at the draft with the selection of stud defenseman Luke Schenn. Dead wood was cut in the form of Andrew Raycroft and Darcy Tucker, and free agency provided reinforcements in Jeff Finger, Niklas Hagman and Curtis Joseph.
Jamal Mayers, Mikhail Grabovski and Ryan Hollweg were brought in via trade, and even the front office got a boost with the addition of Al Coates and Joe Nieuwendyk.
Forgotten in all the hubbub has been the player who might make the biggest noise of them all next season: Nikolai Kulemin.
The Russian winger was selected in the second round, 44th overall, of the 2006 draft (as a 19-year-old) and his stock has done nothing but skyrocket since then.
The six-foot, 200-pound forward came to fame as the third player on a line with Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin at the 2006 World Junior Championship. But he soon proved that he didn't need star linemates to get the job done; his production with Magnitogorsk tripled the season after Malkin left the team for the NHL, and he was named the MVP of the Russian Superleague that year.
That's the RSL, a league with pros and prospects alike. It's not a junior league. For a 20-year-old to attain such an honour is nearly unheard of.
Did I mention that Kulemin won the Russian league's rookie of the year award the previous season?
It's difficult to get a good handle on a prospect when all you're going by is scouting reports and the odd glimpse of international play, but all indications point to Kulemin being one of the biggest steals of the 2006 draft.
Just about everyone agrees that if the draft were held again today, Kulemin would be picked in the upper half of the first round. Many consider him to be a better prospect than Jiri Tlusty, picked at No. 13 in the same draft.
That doesn't mean Tlusty's stock has dropped. It means Kulemin has improved his game to the point where he's neck-and-neck with players who were picked in the top 15 in his draft year.
Kulemin is a strong skater with a very hard, very accurate shot (0:42 mark) who loves to get dirty. He'll never score 50 goals or lead his team in penalty minutes, but he offers the best of both worlds.
The knock on many Russians is that they don't play an NHL style. In other words, they're not physical enough. But Kulemin already has that down pat. He loves to go into the corners or lay the body to dig out pucks, and he plays much bigger than his size.
Also unlike many Russians, Kulemin pays attention to his own zone.
Combine that with his sniping ability, hockey sense, crunching hits, and work ethic, and Kulemin is the complete package.
There are conflicting opinions from scouts as to his upside. According to the classification system on Hockey's Future, Kulemin falls into the category of "players with definite skill that might be just a cut below elite status, but still possessing All-Star potential."
Others see him as a high-end second-liner with loads of grit and versatility.
Personally, I'm more interested in the numbers Kulemin can put up and the areas in which he can help the Leafs than in pigeonholing him into a defined role so early.
If he can develop into a 30-goal man who inflicts a physical toll on opponents and kills penalties well, I'll be thrilled.
Leafs GM Cliff Fletcher has already confirmed that Kulemin will start the season with the Leafs. It's hard to imagine him ending up in the AHL for any reason, considering the Leafs' weakness up front and his embrace of the North American style of play.
Not to mention that he stood out like a man among boys at the Leafs' recent prospects camp.
Kulemin is unlike most Europeans who come to North America in that he's already adapted to the more physical standard. For that reason, it's unlikely that the transition will be much trouble for him.
Like most European rookies, however, he'll likely tail off toward the end of the season due to the rigours of the NHL schedule. The RSL plays a 57-game regular season.
2008-09 Prediction: 22 g, 26 a, 48 pts
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