Nikolai Kulemin: 30 Goal Scorer

In tonight’s 3-2 shootout loss to the Washington Capitals, Nikolai Kulemin joined Phil Kessel as a 30 goal scorer. Taking a pass on the wing from Clarke MacArthur he cut inside and rifled a wrist shot past Neuvirth to become the first Maple Leafs’ born and bred 30 goal scorer in a long time. How long? The last time a player drafted by the Leafs scored 30 goals for the Leafs was 1998-99 when Sergei Berezin notched 37 goals.

When Nikolai Kulemin came to North America he came with a strong pedigree. He was the Russian Super League’s playoff MVP with Mettallurg Magnitogorsk and came with a glowing scouting report courtesy of Dave King before he crossed the pond:

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Everybody would assume that Malkin made Kulemin a great player. It was a combination of both players. Malkin’s a great player, but Kulemin could really play with Malkin, read off Malkin. He’s just a really good, really complete player. Any NHL organization that’s got this man has a good player.

He’s a two-way hockey player. He’s got the ability to add to your offence. He can make good plays, he can also score. Beyond that, what really impressed me, was his defensive anticipation. His ability to read the game defensively and make the right play.

That is probably the kind of guy you’d want to talk to before writing a story about the newcomer. You could also just admit you don’t know what to expect. Or you could be a moustachioed asshole, take the most ludicrous prediction possible and insult an entire fanbase. You might not want to do that because when he pots his thirtieth goal of the season you will probably look like a dummy.

Since day one, it was clear that Nikolai Kulemin had the physical tools to succeed. His large frame was always tantalizing for Leafs fans. With each passing season he’s married that size to his excellent skating abilities to mark himself as one of the Leafs’ best forecheckers. There were always glimpses of his hands and hockey sense in his first two seasons and the more he was trusted by Ron Wilson the more confident he became in his skills. His first NHL goal against Detroit was a sign of things to come:

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Kulemin has almost been human chemistry. It’s no surprise that the Leafs’ best line always had the hard working winger on it. In 08-09, the Man Grabs Lemon line of Kulemin, Mikhail Grabovski and Niklas Hagman was the strongest. In 09-10, his trio with Tyler Bozak and Phil Kessel was a bright spot in the Leafs’ dismal season. And this season, his partnership with Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur has formed one of the best lines in hockey. Below is his progression over his NHL career:

Year GP G A PTS  + / – PIMS SH SH%
08-09 73 15 16 31 -8 18 129 11.6
09-10  78 16 20 36 0 16 145 11.0
10-11  80 30 27 57 9 24 173 17.3

There are a few things that stand out besides the jump in goals. It is impressive that such a physical player amasses so few penality minutes. It’s a testament to his discipline, skating ability, and stamina that he is able to avoid racking up penalties. Kulemin’s shooting percentage took a big leap. Whether it will be sustainable (not likely) is obviously a factor for next season. That is why he’ll have to continue to increase the number of shots he takes in order to offset the likely drop in his shooting percentage. Here’s a look at his even strength production:

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Year TOI/60 G/60 A1/60 A2/60 P/60 Sh% Sv% PDO Ozone%
2008-2009 11.97 0.89 0.34 0.27 1.51 9.35 881 975 52.4
2009-2010 13.18 0.76 0.7 0.35 1.81 8.06 909 989 50.4
2010-2011 13.38 1.36 0.23 0.79 2.38 10.26 917 1020 51

The shooting percentage listed is the team’s shooting percentage when Kulemin is on the ice, the save percentage is the team’s save percentage when Kulemin is on the ice, and PDO is the sum of the two. Over the long run, PDO regresses to 1000 so Kulemin suffered from a low PDO in his first two years (more goals against and fewer goals for than would be expected) and has benefitted from a higher PDO this year. His points per 60 minutes of even strength ice-time took a big jump mostly on the back of his goal scoring. The last number is the percentage of face-offs that Kulemin sees in the offensive zone. In part, it’s a sign of a team’s depth and whether a player is facing tough assignments. As a comparison, the greater depth of the Vancouver Canucks allows Alain Vigneault to deploy Daniel Sedin, Henrik Sedin, and Alex Burrows in incredibly favourable circumstances. All in all, it paints a picture of a Leafs’ forward that has begun to really find his level and he was entirely homegrown.

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