Kulemin: Toronto or Magnitogorsk?

With September the 15th approaching fast, NHL players can’t help but start looking at their respective plan Bs. For some of them, like Nikolai Kulemin, finding a new place with a fat paycheque won’t be a problem.

The Leafs winger was born in Magnitogorsk, Russia and began his pro career with the local Metallurg. His agent Gary Grinstein recently said via Sovetsky Sport that his client is more than likely to spend the season in his hometown if the lockout occurs.

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‘Metallurg Magnitogorsk, who owns Nikolai’s rights in the KHL, has already stated they are interested in him,’ said Grinstein. ‘However, nobody wants another lockout. So the battle will go on until the 15th of September. If the lockout happens, Nikolai will play in Magnitogorsk. I’m not going to lie, though, he has a few other offers from the KHL.’

Since ‘The Russian Factor’ is still trending in North America, this possibility understandably worries Leafs fans. Are there any guarantees Kulemin will come back to Toronto, shall the season resume later in the calendar year? No, there aren’t. KHL is yet to announce its position regarding being a possible refuge-league for NHLers, while the Swedish Elitserien has already confirmed it’s only interested in signing players for an entire season – no short-term deals.

Russian players, such as Kulemin, are in a better position than other players when it comes to signing with KHL teams as the league has a quota for import players per team. Russian players only have to fit under the salary cap but the KHL announced certain rulebook arrangements could be made shall the lockout happen.

‘Metallurg has already confirmed we’re going to sign Evgeni Malkin, Nikolai Kulemin and Sergei Gonchar. They’re all from Chelyabinsk region. These are our boys,’ Metallurg GM Gennadyi Velichkin told Sovetsky Sport.

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However, curently Penguins superstar Evgeny Malkin is practicing with CSKA in Moscow. Red Army GM Sergei Fedorov stated that in case of a lockout Malkin will play for the red and blue.

This would make Kulemin even a bigger asset for Magnitogorsk as he’s easily going to become a fans favourite. Kulemin was part of a gold medal winning Team Russia at the recent World Championship in Helsinki, Finland, which is traditionally a much bigger event in Europe than it is in North America.

Magnitogorsk would want to keep Nikolai until the end of the season, but according to his agent Grinstein the Leafs would want him badly.

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 ‘The Leafs applied for arbitration only to re-sign him,’ he said. ‘By filing to arbitration they made sure no other team would offer him a contract in a ‘window’ between July 1st and 5th. That gave us some time to discuss the new contract without any rush. I’m not going to lie – negotiations were tough, as they always are. The club needs Nikolai, though. And Nikolai likes it here. So they came to a mutual agreement’.

What if the situation still needed to be arbitrated?

‘Toronto would have asked for a 15% salary decrease and a new contract for 3 years. I would have fought for a 1-year deal for $3,000,000,’ added Grinstein. ‘In any case, it would have been the arbitre who would have the final word. We couldn’t have disagreed with his decision and went to the KHL, because whatever he would have decided, we’d have to sign the contract. KHL and NHL have an agreement for a mutual respect to each other’s contracts.’

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In other words, NHL lockout is going to put Kulemin in a very difficult position. He may even spin open the war valve between the 2 leagues. And yet he’s always been taken for a quiet guy. 

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