Nikolai Kulemin: “I’m not trying to get popular”



By: Andrey Osadchenko

Nikolai Kulemin doesn’t tend to talk a lot. The Magnitogorsk native isn’t known for words in any language. He mostly keeps to himself and prefers to show what he’s capable of by the way he performs on the ice. However, he never shies away from the media and if you have something to ask, he will answer as honestly as anybody. In case you don’t believe this, here’s the proof.

The Leafs beat the Capitals – probably the most offensive-minded team in the league – 7-1. Before that you managed to score just 1 goal in the game against the Predators. How would you explain this offensive outburst?

– We played well against the Predators and created a lot of scoring chances. The puck just wouldn’t go into the net. Although, in the game against Washington, I think, the luck was on our side. We also were better at finishing and played better on the powerplay.

After James Reimer got injured a lot of fans were worried that the Leafs would have a goaltending problem. Meanwhile, the team scored so little that some fans joked that there is in fact a goaltending problem – an opposing goalie. It looks like it wasn’t the case with the Capitals.

– I don’t think we have a goal-scoring problem. We score a lot of goals in a lot of games. Certainly, every game is different. Sometimes you score, sometimes you don’t. As for our goalies, all of them play really well. In all honesty, every single one of them can be our #1 goalie. So the Leafs have no goaltending problem whatsoever.

However, both Jonas Gustavsson and Ben Scrivens often get criticized.

– I think the guys play well. We win a lot of games even without Reimer, which means that the goalies do a good job. That’s the only proof I need.

Do you think the Maple Leafs lean more towards offense than defense? Even defensemen join the rushes a little too often, which creates a lot of problems for your team.

– We got a really fast team. Very active. Thus, mistakes are unavoidable. This is exactly why sometimes we don’t play well defensively. But what can you do? This is the way our team plays.

Last season Kulemin-Grabovski-MacArthur line took just about everybody in the league by surprise. This season it’s a different story. MacArthur was suspended for the first 2 games of the season and now both Grabovski and him are injured. How do you feel playing with new linemates?

– It’s our job. We have to play with the guys the coach wants us to. I don’t have any problems with it. I just do my job and follow coach’s commands.

Nevertheless, at the beginning of the season your line didn’t produce as much as it did last season. Why?

– Last season we also had some off months. As I said before, sometimes the puck just wouldn’t go into the net. It happens. The good thing is that we create scoring chances. The season is long so I think we’re going to be okay. The guys are going to get well soon and we’re going to keep playing the way we always do.

Obviously enough, you and Grabovski speak Russian. It’s been reported that MacArthur also tried to learn the language. How well can he speak it?

– He was just kidding when he said that. All of us speak only in English with each other.

How often do you forget that MacArthur doesn’t speak Russian and talk to him in Russian on the ice?

– It doesn’t happen anymore. After all, it’s not my first season here, so it’s not a problem anymore.

By the way, does it frustrate you that the vast majority of local fans can’t pronounce your name correctly, even though you’ve been here for a while?

– They asked me what’s the correct pronunciation of my name. I told them and asked them in return how would it be easier for them to call me. They told me ‘Koolemin’. I told them that if that’s easier for them, I don’t really mind.

If you google ‘Kulemin’ and try to find anything about you in English, the information is scarce. Why don’t local reporters talk to you?

– (smiles) Perhaps, I’m not that popular.

Do you know that fans sometimes refer to you as ‘Nikolai The Unknown’?

– No.

It’s because you don’t ever get mentioned in the media.

– I’m not trying to. I’m not trying to get popular. I want to show what I can do on the ice.

Does it surprise you that the Maple Leafs perform so well in the beginning of the season? You turned quite a few heads in the NHL.

– I think you could see that coming by the way we played in the last season. We were in the 4th place in points since last January. We got even stronger this off-season and kept playing our game. And it worked for us.

Some people say that you got unbelievably lucky with the schedule at the beginning of the season. You played a lot of games at home, had enough time to rest between the games and you didn’t really played a whole lot of good teams.

– Perhaps we didn’t play against very strong teams at the start of the season, but then again there are no bad teams in the NHL. It’s always hard to get a win regardless against whom you play. Just take a look at the standings. You can see that all the teams are close to each other points-wise. The difference between first place and last place in the conference is 7-8 points or something like that. I wouldn’t say that we got to where we are now because we had an easy schedule. We just play our game and follow our coach’s commands.

The Leafs haven’t made the play-offs since 2004. Do you think the bad stretch is going to end this season?

– I think we have a good shot at it. If we keep playing the way we are now, we’re going to be in the play-offs. We have to keep it up and fight till the end in every single game.

Follow Andrey on twitter @Aosadchenko