Is Nik Kulemin the odd-man out?

The situation is very clear: the Toronto Maple Leafs don’t have the salary cap space to sign both Nazem Kadri and Cody Franson unless they a) move some salary or b) Dave Nonis is secretly a wizard. Barring the latter option, it makes sense to explore the names of players it makes sense to move. The preference is John-Michael Liles, but I’m getting a little antsy seeing Nik Kulemin’s name pop up ever so often. His name has been dangled as trade bait every day for the last God-Knows-When.

Kulemin is a most interesting player. While there’s a bit of excitement for Mason Raymond joining the Leafs in training camp, Kulemin has been a 30-goal scorer more recently than Raymond has been a 25-goal scorer. Their games are different—Kulemin is a more physical player while Raymond’s talents (before his injury) lay in puck-possession, controlling the game in the offensive zone, and playmaking.

He’s worth $2.8-million this season, but is stuck behind an excellent contingent of top six wingers headed into training camp: Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul, David Clarkson and James van Riemsdyk. He’s under contract for one more year and $2.8-million isn’t what you want to pay a third liner in a cap crunch year. Let’s explore. Yay.

From Sean Gentille at the Sporting News:

Kulemin’s a useful player; he, Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur played together under Ron Wilson, and Wilson used them in a way that maximized their talents. Randy Carlyle, for whatever reason, wasn’t interested in that, and not coincidentally, Grabovski and MacArthur are both already gone.

Signing Kadri and Franson for a total of less than $5 million, which is what the Leafs would have to do now to fit under the cap, would be a major coup. It’s also clearly what they’re shooting for—but it probably shouldn’t be counted upon.

So, assuming some team is willing to acquire Kulemin without sending some (or any) salary back to Toronto, replacing him with Raymond at, say, $800,000 would create $2 million in space. That move might not make the Leafs better, but it would leave them with a little less than $7 million to deal with Kadri and Franson.

I would obviously prefer to keep Kulemin. I wrote passioned defences of him last summer and mentioned him as a big player that could be the Leafs’ “guy in the top six with size” unicorn as opposed to opening up the wallet for Clarkson. Despite his usage last season, playing some of the toughest minutes in hockey alongside Mikhail Grabovski, Kulemin put together 1.8 points per 60 minutes, the third highest rate of his five-year career, increasing his overall average. His shot rate has gone to dust in the last two seasons, falling from 7.4 shots per 60 in his 30-goal campaign to 6.2 to 5.6, that last number being 172nd out of 208 forwards with at least 500 even strength minutes last season.

That said, Kulemin’s defence is a bit of terrific. Grabovski had one heck of a tea party without Nik Kulemin on the ice last season, falling to a gaudy 38.3% Corsi rate (Corsi rate = percentage of overall shot attempts that went the Leafs’ way with Grabovski on the ice without Kulemin). It’s tough to quantify defence, since a good defensive play is, by definition, a play that never happened (ie: the absence of a shot, scoring chance, or goal by the other team) but I’m comfortable in suggesting that not a lot of players would have puck-possession numbers similar to Kulemin in the situations he faced.

How to tell a player faced extreme situations? His name is easily discernible on a player usage chart that has a zillion names on it. The vertical y-axis represents relative quality of competition (Kulemin’s was the highest in the NHL among regular forwards) and the horizontal x-axis represents the percentage of faceoffs started in the offensive zone:

I don’t think he’s replaceable by Raymond, because Raymond, coming off a series of injuries including a back injury that hurt him in virtually every measurable category, needs sheltered minutes and a scoring role to get back to where he can be. I don’t think playing alongside Jay McClement or David Bolland is the right fit, since that requires moving the puck out of his own end a lot and blocking shots. Raymond’s overall shooting percentage didn’t fall down too much post-injury, so the sensible thing to do would be to play him in situations that maximized his shots, like a sheltered offensive role.

Twitter dot com’s Hope Smoke mentioned as I was writing this post that Raymond acts more of a replacement for Matt Frattin and I tend to agree. Frattin had a big year in 2013, but I don’t think he’s really much more than that. Unfortunately, the Leafs can’t trade Matt Frattin to free up the space to sign Raymond since they’ve already traded Matt Frattin once this summer. As much as I’d hate to see Kulemin go, based on what he’s being paid in a cap crunch year doesn’t make sense in the context of the role Randy Carlyle has found for him. I love the idea of him and David Bolland together eating up tough minutes, but that may not be feasible.

One of the key names on the Leafs roster may not be here next week when camp opens, is the thing. Will it be Kadri? Franson? Kulemin? Or will it turn out that Nonis is actually a wizard and John-Michael Liles finds himself a team that wants him at his high price tag?

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  • nonikhanna

    There was a time when Kulemin played on the top line with Bozak and Kessel. I don’t want to lose Kulemin, because he can move up and be effective on other lines when there are injuries.

    With his lower production, Kulemin might not be that expensive to re-sign. There has to be a better way.

  • nonikhanna

    “With his lower production, Kulemin might not be that expensive to re-sign. There has to be a better way.”

    Not really at this point. It’s either unload Liles, Kulemin, or someone really important. We could also go with the longshot that Nonis is able to sign both Kadri and Franson without removing anyone, but given that he’s bringing Raymond in I’m gonna go with someone being moved to sign the two.

  • nonikhanna

    I like Mason Raymond but, clearly,he’s not the player he was before his back injury. There is no comparison between him and Nicolai Kulemin.
    As for the cap pressure of signing Kadri and Franson, given the depth on the Leafs’ blueline, Kadri takes first priority. Here’s hoping that Dave Nonis finds a way to keep both; and, as a final thought, here’s hoping that James Reimer kicks ass in training camp and throughout the season.
    PS Can’t wait to see Paul Ranger’s return to the NHL.

  • nonikhanna

    Here’s what I see happening. I actually think the Leafs will keep Kulemin & Trade Franson. Because they have Paul Ranger Signed to a 1yr $1M Contract & let’s be honest Ranger wasn’t signed to play with the Marlies this time around but to give the Leafs more options on the Blueline on the big Club. The Leafs also signed TJ Brennan. Morgan Reilly could make the team out of Camp too. So I actually think Franson is being shopped. Even after great year. I just can’t see the Leafs trading Kulemin away as he was great on the PK last season with McClement. Despite his $2.8M contract I think Kulemin is too valuable to the Leafs to trade. It’s either Lile or Franson who’s packing their bags