I received a tweet about Nikolai Kulemin that got me thinking today…
— Ashby Kulemin (@kingkuley) December 19, 2013
That tweet reminded me of a conversation I had with an NHL player during the 2011-12 season.
I was talking to the player about what I thought the Leafs could do that season, and I brought up the fact Kulemin was just coming off of a 30-goal season. The player was really confused. "Kulemin? Come on. No way." I had to actually pull out my phone and show him the stats to prove it to him.
"Huh… Well I’ll be damned," he said.
So when I got that tweet this morning, I acted like any other loser blogger who only works nights, and I started watching the video of Nikolai Kulemin’s 30-goal season from 2010-11. I’d like you to watch it too so I can show you what I noticed.
THE MGK LINE
Well first of all, Kulemin played with one of the best Leafs lines of this past decade, which probably sounds a lot better than it is, with Clarke MacArthur and Mikhail Grabovski. This line was virtually unstoppable that season, and for a while was actually the hottest line in the entire National Hockey League. That number I do not have in front of me, but I specifically remember working at Leafs TV at the time, and the stat was that no line in hockey had more points than them over a certain period of time. I remember shortly after the birth of his first child, Grabovski was the hottest player in the entire NHL, as well. They just couldn’t stop scoring.
What’s even more interesting is you’ll notice there were a few games in their where MacArthur was taken off of that line in favor of Phil Kessel. Toward the end of the prior season, Tyler Bozak’s rookie year, the combination of Kulemin, Bozak, and Kessel was actually the Leafs’ top line for a while. Kulemin was considered a legitimate offensive weapon on the Toronto Maple Leafs. Time flies.
Second major observation: Wow did Kulemin score on some terrible teams and brutal goalies that season.
Goal 1 – vs. Ottawa – on Pascal LeClaire
Goal 2 – vs. Ottawa – on Brian Elliott
Goal 3 – vs. Washington – on Michael Neuvirth
Goal 4 – vs. Buffalo – on Jhonas Enroth
Goal 5 – vs. Nashville – on Pekka Rinne (PPG)
Goal 6 – vs. Dallas – on Kari Lehtonen
Goal 7 – vs. Dallas – on Kari Lehtonen
Goal 8 – vs. Tampa Bay – on Dan Ellis (PPG)
Goal 9 – vs. Tampa Bay – on Dan Ellis
Goal 10 – vs. Calgary – on Miikka Kiprusoff
Goal 11 – vs. Atlanta – on Ondrej Pavelec (PPG)
Goal 12 – vs. New Jersey – on Martin Brodeur
Goal 13 – vs. Columbus – on Steve Mason
Goal 14 – vs. Atlanta – Ondrej Pavelec
Goal 15 – vs. Atlanta – Chris Mason (PPG)
Goal 16 – vs. Los Angeles – on Jonathan Quick
Goal 17 – vs. Florida – on Scott Clemmensen
Goal 18 – vs. Buffalo – on Ryan Miller (SH)
Goal 19 – vs. Atlanta – on Ondrej Pavelec
Goal 20 – vs. NY Islanders – on Mikko Koskinen
Goal 21 – vs. New Jersey – on Johan Hedberg
Goal 22 – vs. Atlanta – on Chris Mason
Goal 23 – vs. Pittsburgh – on Marc-Andre Fleury
Goal 24 – vs. Philadelphia – on Sergei Bobrovsky
Goal 25 – vs. NY Islanders – on Al Montoya
Goal 26 – vs. Tampa Bay – on Dwayne Roloson
Goal 27 – vs. Colorado – on Brian Elliott
Goal 28 – vs. Colorado – on Brian Elliott
Goal 29 – vs. Ottawa – on Craig Anderson
Goal 30 – vs. Washington – on Michael Neuvirth (PPG)
After Kulemin’s 22nd goal of the season, this one on Chris Mason, Joe Bowen jokes "This line is thinking about seriously moving to Georgia." The Kulemin-Grabovski-MacArthur smoked the Thrashers all the way to Winnipeg that season.
Seriously though, how many of the goalies listed above could be called legitimate starters in the NHL, let alone good? Brian Elliott has been an All-Star but that season he couldn’t catch water if he were made of sponge. A younger Ondrej Pavelec? Woof. Dan Ellis? Remember when Mikko Koskinen was forced to suit up for the Islanders? Poor guy.
Of Kulemin’s 30 goals in 2010-11, only 11 of them were scored against teams that actually made the playoffs that season. That means 19 were scored against non-playoff teams. Long story short, Kulemin scored about two-thirds of his goals in 2010-11 against non-playoff teams. For comparison, Phil Kessel scored 17 of his 32 goals that season against playoff teams. You may look at that and say that isn’t a huge difference, but percentage-wise it’s pretty significant. Kulemin scored barely over one-third of his goals against playoff teams, while Kessel scored over half of his against playoff teams. It sounds a little bit different when you put it in those terms.
SHOOTING LEADS TO GOALS SOMETIMES
Third major observation: Kulemin actually shot the damn puck. The Magnitogorsk Mule shot the puck 173 times in 2010-11, good for fourth on the Leafs. So far in 2013-14, Kulemin is 12th on the team with just 25 shots in 24 games. "Wow, slow down you puck hog!" thought Jerred Smithson.
Now all Kulemin has to do is shoot more and he’ll be great, right? I wish it were that easy.
First of all, Kulemin isn’t used in an offensive role at all. The centre he spends the most time with is Jay McClement. Kulemin ain’t scoring 30 on Jay McClement’s wing. I’m not saying those two players aren’t good, I’m just saying they’re better at other things. If I’m a coach and I need a goal, I’m not going "Hey Jay and Kule – you’re up!"
This next one might be more telling.
Math-whizzes out there might be thinking "Wait a sec – 30 goals on 173 shots? That seems pretty high." Yes. It is. Insanely high.
Kulemin scored on 17.3% of his shots in 2010-11. For comparison, that’s higher than any of the top 26 goal-scorers in the NHL from that season, including 50-goal-scorer and Hart-winner Corey Perry (17.2%). Not one 30-goal-scorer from that season had a higher shooting percentage than Kulemin, Two players actually had the exact same 17.3% as Kulemin, however: Milan Lucic and Drew Stafford. Now, does anyone ever expect those guys to score 30 again? It’s possible Lucic could, but I think most people would consider that a pleasant surprise. Drew Stafford? Not likely.
Kulemin scored 25 of his 30 goals that season at even strength. Watching the video, you can see why. Kulemin isn’t the type of player you put out there for slow-pace set plays. You put him out there because he’s the same size as Colton Orr (which nobody seems to ever mention) and tell him to charge at the net like a bull at a matador. In the role he’s currently in, when would he ever find himself in a situation where doing that would make sense? Pretty much never.
WHAT TO DO WITH KU…lemin…(that sucked)
Unfortunately, I think Nikolai Kulemin’s time is up in Toronto, as it probably should be. He isn’t a bad player, but his contract is up at the end of the season. What will ask for? Do the Leafs want to keep him? Does he want to stay? What will his role be? It might be time to part ways.
I’ve said this for a long time, but the Pittsburgh Penguins should take a seriously hard look at acquiring Kulemin at the deadline for a playoff run. In one situation, you could play him with Malkin. They played together when they were young, they played together during the lockout – they know each other. Here’s Kulemin and Malkin in action in the KHL last season, with the sultry tones of myself and Andrey Osadchenko on the commentary.
Or if that doesn’t work, hey, now you have a shutdown forward! The Penguins’ problem isn’t scoring goals anyway; it’s keeping them out. Plus Kulemin is a very underrated and affective hitter. He’s a heavy body, and while he’s not known for really crushing guys, he can.
Even linesmen aren’t safe.
Nikolai Kulemin is an international man of mystery. What’s next for the man I call the Magnitogorsk Mule? We’ll have to see.