May 4, 2013; Boston, MA, USA; Toronto Maple Leafs left wing Nikolai Kulemin (41) controls the puck during the first period in game two of the first round of the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs against the Boston Bruins at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

How Should The Leafs Value Nikolai Kulemin?

Quick trivia: Who were the two Leafs who finished in the top five in Relative Corsi Quality of Competition (minimum 10 games played) last season in the NHL? If you guessed Dion Phanuef and Nikolai Kulemin, you’re correct.

The first name to most Leafs fans would be obvious, but Kulemin’s to most would be an absolute shock. Kulemin has been with the Leafs ever since they drafted him with the 44th pick in the 2006 NHL Draft. He’s proceeded to contribute 175 points in 351 games, just about a half-point per game. As it stands today, Kulemin’s contract expires at the end of the 2013-2014 season. With the Leafs set to have as many as 6 UFAs in 2014 (Phil Kessel, Phanuef, Kulemin, Dave Bolland, Trevor Smith and Jay McClement), and 4 RFAs (Jake Gardiner, James Reimer, TJ Brennan and Joe Colborne), we could live in a world where the Leafs won’t be having Nikolai Kulemin on their roster in 2014-2015, which would be a shame considering he’s one of the Leafs’ best forwards, and a legitimate top-six and two-way forward on any NHL team.

The following are two different players’ even-strength stats (taken from from 2010 to 2013. Again with the guessing games, can you name the two players?





































The first row applies to Mr. Kulemin and the second row applies to Logan Couture. The relevance of this is Couture parlayed his production into a 5-year, $30 million deal from the San Jose Sharks. There are some things to note about this: One, Kulemin has not had the same opportunities that Couture has had, especially last season. Couture played 45 per cent of his shifts during even-strength play with Patrick Marleau, an all-star level centre. And two, Couture played 31.9 per cent of his shifts in the offensive zone, compared to Kulemin who only played a paltry 21.2 per cent, good for 13th-worst in the league among players with at least 300 minutes played.

Since his rookie year in 2008-2009, Kulemin has been one of the best forwards for Toronto. From 2009-2013, he ranks sixth in Corsi percentage, seventh in Fenwick percentage, fourth in even-strength points, third in even-strength goals, ninth in even-strength points-per-hour and eighth in Corsi-per-hour. He also ranked second in Rel Corsi QoC and second-last on the team in offensive zone start percentage during the lockout-shortened season.

The Leafs deployed Kulemin in a defensive role alongside Mikhail Grabovski and McClement for the majority of the regular season, and his possession numbers suffered greatly as a result. Kulemin’s Corsi-per-hour and Fenwick-per-hour were by far the lowest of his career. His lack of power play time is another indicator as to why he struggled last season and the year before. During the 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 seasons, Kulemin only received 78 minutes of power play time compared to the 211 minutes he got under Wilson during the 2010-2011 season. Carlyle switched things up in the playoffs by playing Kulemin and Grabovski with James van Riemsdyk, and Kulemin bounced back as a result. He posted a Corsi Relative of 13.2 while placing ninth in Rel Corsi QoC. Kulemin also suffered from a tremendous lack of puck luck in the playoffs, finishing second-last on the team in PDO (on-ice save percentage plus on-ice shooting percentage) behind the one-and-only Mikhail Grabovski.

The Leafs were a terrible possession team last season and to be quite frank, most of their team statistics would point to a lottery team. During a year when the love-in for Randy Carlyle from the Toronto mainstream media was bordering on lunacy, they ranked dead-last in Corsi percentage, Fenwick percentage, offensive zone starts percentage, and shots against-per-hour in even-strength situations. The Leafs in many ways were a worse team than the Wilson-led team in 2011-2012. One of the key differences for the Leafs was goaltending and puck luck, things they didn’t get during their 2011-12 season where things like “effort” and “lack of defensive discipline” were the main narratives being spewed by fans and MSM. The Leafs ranked first in the league in even-strangth PDO, a huge jump from their 23rd ranking in 2011-2012. The Leafs also had very good goaltending during the 2013 season, ranking 15th in even-strength save percentage, a marked improvement from their 28th ranking the year before. It’s extremely unlikely that they can replicate the puck luck they received, and provided the Leafs don’t drastically alter their opportunistic offence and propensity for giving up a bunch of shots, the Leafs will likely be a lottery team.

Barring a return to his pre-Carlyle days, the odds of Kulemin being re-signed by the Leafs are not great. As the departures of Matt Frattin, Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur have shown, the Leafs have been willing to give up their best possession players in favour of bigger named players in Jonathan Bernier, David Clarkson and Bolland. Kulemin’s deal is set to expire at the end of the 2014 season and with the amount of free agents the Leafs will have to deal with, compounded with his decreased production since 2010-2011, Kulemin could be considered by Leafs’ brass a replaceable player. With the way the Leafs have been moulded to the preference of Randy Carlyle, Kulemin might fall in line with Frattin, Grabovski and MacArthur in talented two-way players who’ve been replaced by “grittier” and more “physical” players who the Leafs’ brass crave. The Leafs have been letting quality players leave for the longest time, and Kulemin come 2014 could be added to that list.

Tags: NHL Nikolai Kulemin Toronto Maple Leafs

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