Assessing Nikolai Kulemin; Part II – Defence

Part I of this series, from earlier today, looks at Kulemin’s offensive potential.

This post will focus more on defence, and, admittedly, it isn’t as sexy of a concept, but it’s important nonetheless. Players spend half of a hockey game focusing on scoring goals, and the other half of their mindset has to be preventing them at the other end. One goal against negates one goal for, so one prevented goal must logically equal one goal.

A problem is that we don’t have traditional statistics to calculate defensive production or ability. There are no 20-goal or 30-goal preventers as there are 20-goal or 30-goal scorers, but they must exist in some capacity. It’s possible that Kulemin may be one of those guys.

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Kulemin doesn’t exactly have the pedigree of a defensive forward in the NHL. He’s big and brawny, but he doesn’t often block shots, and he was the Leafs’ sixth forward option on the penalty kill this season, relegating him to a third unit that doesn’t even exist in EA Sports games.

Much of Kulemin’s defensive work is done on that second line he plays on at even strength. For two consecutive years, Kulemin has been put with Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur, for the most part. Last year, Kulemin faced the highest Corsi Rel QoC of any Toronto Maple Leaf.

For those unfamiliar with Corsi Rel QoC, the simple explination is that it’s a quality of competition metric. The basics are explained in the Arctic Ice Hockey FAQ page. What we need to takeaway is that Kulemin played the hardest minutes among Leafs forwards last season, seeing the bulk of his time against the Evgeni Malkins and the Jason Spezzas of the league.

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Season Corsi Rel Corsi Rel QoC Ozone %
2009 -0.7 0.367 52.4%
2010 6.9 0.297 50.4%
2011 13.7 0.464 51.0%
2012 4.6 0.892 53.3%

Here are his basic advanced stats from Behind the Net. It’s worth noting that Kulemin has always trended toward seeing tougher levels of competition than his teammates, but this season the minutes were more difficult.

As for his Corsi Rel, the important thing is that it’s a positive number. Relative Corsi is how well Kulemin’s line controls the puck when he’s on the ice relative to his teammates. The Leafs are about 5 shot attempts per 60 minutes better with Kulemin on than off , a significant downgrade from the previous season.

Defence, to me anyway, is indicated by how well the team controls the puck when a player is on the ice. Hockey is a game of ratios, and you’re trying to get 50% + 1 of the goals in any given game. The best way to figure this is get 50% + 1 of the shots and hope your goaltending holds up. The Leafs have had unenviable goaltending since the days of Ed Belfour, so judging Kulemin by his +/- rating is slightly dishonest.

Here is how many shots the Leafs have controlled with the score tied with Kulemin on and off the ice in his career:


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  Kulemin On Kulemin Off
2009 50.4% 47.5%
2010 55.6% 51.8%
2011 47.8% 43.0%
2012 50.2% 46.0%

[These are score tied numbers taken from]

The Leafs’ worst year from a puck-possession standpoint was 2011. They were a fairly decent team in 2010, surprisingly, but they had an awful team shooting percentage (7.6%, third lowest in the NHL) and an awful team save percentage (.906, fourth lowest in the NHL).

Either way, with Kulemin on the ice, it’s clear that the Leafs do 3-4 percentage points better as opposed to without. From the wing position, he “drives play”, showcasing a consistent ability to keep the bulk of the shots at the right end of the rink.

This was the case even in Kulemin’s year without Mikhail Grabovski, which was 2010. The Leafs spent a lot of time in the opposing end of the ice, but Grabovski’s line was Nik Hagman and Jason Blake, while Kulemin played with Phil Kessel and Tyler Bozak. One way to balance the Leafs lines may be to go back to similar units, and have Grabovski centre James Van Riemsdyk and Clarke MacArthur, and sell high on Joffrey Lupul, but I doubt the Leafs would make a decision like this.

Now, we can’t place a number on that, unfortunately. Driving the play by 3-4 percentage points doesn’t give us a round number of goals prevented. We can estimate that, if a player is on the ice for 1000 shots, with equal goaltending the difference between a 50% player and a 53% player will be about five goals in overall differential if save percentages.

Approximating defensive values is tricky, but Kulemin’s has always been there. Every Leaf skater, with the exception of Grabovski and, for some reason, Joey Crabb, has better puck possession numbers in the last three seasons with Kulemin on the ice as opposed to off of it.

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Kulemin’s defence slipped a little this season, but the team as a whole was better off with Kulemin eating up some of the tougher minutes and opening opportunities for Lupul and Kessel to get the work done offensively. If he can be a positive possession player facing the toughest competition in the league, he’s done his job, it’s just that his job may be a little different to what some fans would expect.

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  • Danny Gray

    Here’s the issue with Kulemin and Grabovski. They are two of our best defensive forwards – and they need to go up against top competition because god knows Bozak and/or Connolly can’t. So they’re our second line, but effectively they’re a combination of a shutdown/scoring line. Except Kulemin can’t score.

    So do we keep him with Grabo to go against the top competition in a defensive role, and accept his offensive limitations? Or do we separate the two?