Today the Leafs extended RFA Nikolai Kulemin.
If they had done this at the end of last season we all would have wondered why he was re-signing for so little. Because it comes at the end of this season, people will no doubt wonder why he was re-signed for so much. That is to say, in this market $2.8 mil per season is nothing for a 30 goal scorer but it is more than a hell of a lot for a 7 goal scorer. Which Kulemin will we see during the rest of this contract? That is the big question.
My concerns focus on where he falls in the depth chart. Kulemin’s breakout year came from playing with MacArthur and Grabo most of that season. He didn’t get to play with them as much last year and certainly that was a major part of his drop in production. Now, with the acquisition of JVR, where exactly does Kulemin fit in the top 6? It seems extraordinarily unlikely that Kulemin will manage to put up 20 goals (which is what I’d like out of him on the offensive end) playing on the third line. (Unless of course Carlyle actively and consistently rolls 4 lines, and then anything is possible.)
But that omits one valuable fact about Kulemin, that the trolls on the TSN message boards forget when they criticize this deal and that is that Kulemin is more than an above average defensive player. He was arguably their strongest defensive winger in their top 6 the last two years (when he was in their top 6), and was, with Grabo, their best defensive forward playing big minutes. He has the added bonus over bottom 6 forwards of being able to score. (At least, we know in the right circumstances he can score a lot, in addition to playing very solid defensive hockey.)
So that changes the question a little to: is it worth spending more money on a solid two-way player who might (and it now appears to be a big ‘might’) score 20-30 goals in addition?
To that I would say ‘yes.’ For me, Kulemin’s style of game is a style of hockey more conducive to winning teams in this post-lockout era than, say, Kessel’s. That’s not to say Kessel isn’t a far, far, far better offensive player than Kulemin – obviously, he is – but just to say that teams with depth players like Kulemin are likely to do better – all other things being equal – than teams without depth players like Kulemin. If the the Leafs are going to keep relying on Kessel as their offensive engine, the Leafs need players like Kulemin around to keep the balance.
What I’m trying to say is that $2.8 mil for a player of Kulemin’s abilities is a good bet, even if it looks like a much worse bet this year. Since I, unlike many of my fellow Leafs fans, do not see much promise from this core group, I don’t see the harm in paying guys like Kulemin this much money.
I do see the harm in paying guys like Kulemin this much money when it is for third line minutes, but maybe by some fluke the brain trust’s decision to move JVR to centre will work and the MacArthur-Grabo-Kulemin line will find itself reunited. That of course assumes that both Bozak and Connolly don’t find themselves in the top 6 as well, which is somewhat unlikely given
- Connolly’s contract and
- the Leafs’ tendency to play Bozak as the #1 centre whenever they get the opportunity.
Let’s just say I’m not holding my breath. (As an aside, do I think a Kessel Connolly Lupul line would be more successful than a Kessel JVR Lupul line? Yes, yes I do. Anyway…)
So that means that this contract probably amounts to paying a third liner $2.8 mil per season (provided nobody is traded, waived, etc) and, though that is not unheard of, and not exactly outrageous in this market, it’s still a little expensive for 12-15 minutes a night or whatever the going rate is these days.
So I will remain hopeful that Kulemin can regain his scoring touch while continuing to play a good defensive game, and I hope he gets minutes.
But I can’t say I think it’s likely.