The Space Between

Jeff Angus


Nikolai Kulemin

Nikolai Kulemin made himself a household name in Russia in 2006-07 when he captured the  Russian Super League (now known as the KHL) MVP title. The Maple Leafs used their second-round draft pick in 2006 on Kulemin, and he made their scouts look very smart with his title-winning campaign. He notched 27 regular season goals in 2006-07 (10 more than anyone else on his team, Metallurg Magnitogorsk), and added 10 more in 15 playoff contests. That Magnitogorsk team had only three players hit double digits in goals, making Kulemin's 27 goals all the more impressive. He finished his career in Magnitogorsk with a 21 goal season in 2007-08, deciding after that to make the move across the water to the NHL. Kulemin has yet to display the offensive skills that made him a star in Russia on a consistent basis for the Leafs, but the flashes of brilliance have been there.


Kulemin made his debut in Russia skating on the third line for Magnitogorsk. Young players having to earn their ice time is one commonality between the NHL and the KHL. He skated on a line with another young talent – Evgeni Malkin. Kulemin only scored five goals in his first full season, but he obviously showed the Maple Leaf scouts enough for them to use such a high draft pick on him. He didn't disappoint with his following two seasons in Russia, but he was still largely an unknown when he arrived in Toronto to begin the 2008-09 campaign. He immediately impressed with his work ethic, determination, and strong two-way play, the same qualities that made him such an effective player back in Russia. And, like many other young forwards in the NHL, he struggled to produce on a consistent basis. He was tentative with the puck, and often looked uncomfortable when placed in an offensive role. Many were wondering how he was able to score 27 goals and win the MVP in the KHL, which is widely regarded as a tougher league to score in than the NHL (not higher quality, just more defensive).


Kulemin finished last season with 15 goals and 31 points in 73 games. By comparison, Pavel Datsyuk had 11 goals and 35 points in 70 games at the same age. It is obvious to see that Kulemin does not possess the skill set of Datsyuk by watching him play, but the comparison effectively highlights that Kulemin's rookie numbers are nothing to sneeze at. 13 of his 15 goals were scored at even strength, with the other two coming on the power play. He averaged just less than 14 minutes of ice time per game, with 1:38 of that coming with the man advantage. Kulemin's numbers in 2009-10 are eerily similar to last season. He is on pace for 15 goals and 29 points in 78 games. He fired 129 shots on goal in 2008-09, and is on pace for 139 this season. His ice time has shot up to over 15 minutes per game, thanks to over a minute more per game on the penalty kill. He played the majority of