After weeks of negotiating, the Toronto Maple Leafs have announced that they have signed winger Nikolai Kulemin to a two-year, $4.7 million contract.
The deal is somewhat of a compromise to what Kulemin was originally asking for—believed to be in the $3 million per season range.
Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke had said all along that he had no intention of paying first line money to a player he deemed had not earned it, thus, the $4.7 deal, which both parties are happy with.
In Kulemin, the Leafs solidify one of their top six forwards and hold on to a player that has the potential to be a 20-30 goal scorer.
Kulemin, a former Leafs' second round draft pick (44th overall, 2006), scored 16 goals and added 20 assists last season for a total of 36 points in 2009-10, mostly in a first or second line role.
The recent acquisitions of Kris Versteeg (acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks) and Colby Armstrong (free agent signing) should give Kulemin some competition for first line minutes, with Armstrong likely emerging as the stronger candidate.
A second line featuring Armstrong, Tyler Bozak, and Kulemin would seem ideal—a great combination of skill, grit, physical play, and energy. That said, Burke has yet to bring a legitimate first line centre to play in between sniper Phil Kessel and another top winger wouldn’t hurt either.
Kulemin, who made $875,000 last season, still has a lot to prove to the Leafs' brass. He will have to improve his numbers dramatically in order to earn his raise, which equates to an extra $1.5 million per season.
A more consistent effort and an improved compete level from Kulemin is what Burke is betting on. Burke has often stated that he wants to establish an environment in which players have to earn their minutes—something Kulemin was given by default last season.
It’s a decent signing, but there is plenty of work to be done, including determining the future of veteran defenseman Tomas Kaberle, who, despite being highly sought after, is yet to be moved.
With the Kulemin signing, the Leafs now have a total of 19 players signed and just over $7 million left to sign three players.
There is still plenty of talent available via free agency, including left winger Ilya Kovalchuk (who is rumored to be headed to Los Angeles), Matthew Lombardi (who would be a nice fit with the Leafs), and Toronto native Raffi Torres (who has also been linked to the Leafs).
There is plenty of time for Burke to make another splash, but it’s looking more and more like he will enter the 2010-11 season without that coveted top-line centre.
Until next time,
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