What To Do With Nikolai Kulemin?

The Toronto Maple Leafs have, for the most part, been blessed in terms of shooting percentage in the early portion of this season. From Clarke MacArthur to Phil Kessel to Joffrey Lupul to Mikhail Grabovski, the team has a lot of guys converting shots into goals at higher than their career rates.

The primary exception to this trend of shooting excellence is Nikolai Kulemin.

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With 40 shots, Kulemin has been one of the Leafs’ most high-volume shooters. Aside from the duo of Kessel and Lupul, only Mikhail Grabovski (with 41) has taken more shots on net among Maple Leafs forwards. Yet, somehow, Kulemin is stuck on just two goals.

It isn’t like Kulemin is a poor shot, either. Last season, 17.3% of his shots were goals; on his career, he’s batting a hair under 13.0% – both above average numbers for an NHL forward. Yet, for some reason, this season the shots aren’t going in.

Toronto fans haven’t missed the offensive power outage, either. As the Leafs played the Bruins on Saturday night, Twitter filled with feedback. Some said that Kulemin is trying hard, but simply isn’t in the right headspace to score. Others pointed to a lack of effort on his part. Some called for him to be dropped down the lineup, others benched, and still others traded. Some even called for Kulemin to be demoted to the minors, and when it was pointed out that he would need to go through waivers, responded with "Nobody would take him so no worries."

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Naturally, that’s sort of a ridiculous reaction, especially in Toronto. Last season, Phil Kessel went 14 games without a goal – and this year he’s leading the league in scoring. So when a fan says something like "Kulemin at 18 games without a goal. That’s more than a slump. That’s a sign that you just aren’t a very good player," as one did tonight, it’s difficult not to wonder if they even watched the Leafs last season.

Still, that’s all so much talk. The fact is that Kulemin’s been snakebit, as most Leafs fans will remember and a quick trip through some video highlights confirms. Take a look below at how frequenly Kulemin has been robbed this season.

Here, Kulemin can’t quite get enough on the puck to put it away after a strong forecheck led to a turnover:

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Here, Kulemin’s thwarted by a brilliant Robin Lehner save:

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A loss to Florida gives us a few examples of Kulemin being stymied:

Down by a goal late against Carolina, Kulemin creates a chance on the power play but can’t finish it:

A 2-on-1 against Dallas doesn’t work out when Kulemin elects to shoot:

How much would the story change if two or three of those shots were in the net? Would Kulemin still be a favourite target, or would perception about his play be stronger had one or two goalies been a hair slower, or the shot an inch or two in a different direction?

Kulemin’s getting shots, and he’s getting chances. Soon, he’s going to start getting goals, too.