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Kulemin keeps on plugging along for Leafs

Toronto Maple Leafs left wing Nikolai Kulemin (41) handles the puck while San Jose Sharks defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic (44) closes in during the first period of their NHL hockey game in San Jose, California January 11, 2011.


There are many ways of evaluating the swath that Brian Burke has cut through the Toronto Maple Leafs' team that he inherited two years ago, but here is perhaps the most telling.

After Tomas Kaberle, the Leaf with the longest continuous service in Toronto, is Nikolai Kulemin, who is 193 games into his career with the team and just relentlessly, anonymously plugs along.

At a time when many NHL teams shy away from Russian players because of the perception that they are collectively a high-maintenance bunch, Kulemin is just the opposite. A reliable worker, with a good skill set, and someone who could play a long time in the league.

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Indeed, if you ponder the question of which players - from the group that the Leafs have in place - might be around when (or if) they eventually do turn the corner, you'd have to think that Kulemin fits the bill.

Sometimes, the intangible factors - and the ability to fit into a team concept - can count for a lot, if the skill set among a handful of players is roughly comparable.

Kulemin has improved each year and now is among a handful of Leafs all scoring at roughly the same pace. It is that balance that coach Ron Wilson has harped on lately, that if every line is giving a little something, it removes the pressure from the overall group.

Kulemin says having a North American coach for one year in his teens helped in his adjustment to the NHL. That would be Dave King, now a Phoenix Coyotes assistant, who coached Kulemin in the 2005-06 season when he was running the Russian club team, Metallurg Magnitogorsk. King's big star then was an up-and-coming teenager named Evgeni Malkin. Kulemin? Even then, even internally within the organization, he was not particularly highly rated. Others - NHL drifters such as Stanislav Chistov or Alexei Kaigorodov, prospects such Evgeni Gladskih - were thought to have more of an upside.

King compared Kulemin to another of his favourites, German Titov, a versatile and well-rounded player.

"He was so quiet and so polite and so well-dressed and so committed to the training, on and off the ice," King said. "He was a very young player. I hadn't heard much about him, but the way he played on the ice and the way he carried himself off the ice, he reminded me of German Titov. He had terrific skill, and then you start watching the games and you stop the video and every time there's a defensive situation, he was in exactly the right spot. He had terrific offensive skill and great defensive anticipation and that's a rare combination for a young player."

In Russia, young players practised with the big team because Russia didn't have a junior league. Injuries opened the door for Kulemin and by the end of the year, he was a regular, playing alongside Malkin because the two meshed so well. Igor Korolev, the former Leaf who played on that team, also worked extensively with Kulemin after practice, according to King.

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"Nik always came into the rink every morning wearing a different NHL cap," King said. "One day, it would be the Anaheim Ducks. The next, the Florida Panthers. He had all this hockey memorabilia. I thought, 'this guy must have that dream.'"

Kulemin is living that dream now, in his third NHL season, playing on the Leafs' most productive line alongside Clarke MacArthur and Belarussian Mikhail Grabovski, and meeting all the potential that King saw some years ago.

"He has a lot of experience, Dave, and I liked him very, very much," Kulemin said. "For my game, he taught me a lot, he showed me how to play a full game. I have to say thanks to him for what he did for me."

Kulemin's English-language skills were limited back then, but they have vastly improved, in part because of his association with former Leafs Nik Antropov and Alexei Ponikarovsky.

Leafs assistant coach Tim Hunter saw all the same things in Kulemin as King did. "He's been well coached," Hunter said. "He's a kid that wants to get better all the time. He's probably our best practice player. He does everything a hundred miles an hour in practice, trying to practise like a game situation, which is really impressive.

"I talk to 90 per cent of our forwards. I say: 'You want to know how to practise, you watch Kuley practise.'"

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Last week, in that 9-3 Leaf win over Atlanta, the Thrashers' Dustin Byfuglien knocked Kulemin down. Kulemin got right up and then did the same to Byfuglien, who outweighs him by some 40 pounds. Physically, Kulemin might possess the best mixture of size and skill on the Leaf forward lines.

"He's got the big, big legs, a big ass and a strong enough upper body to take a pounding physically and hand it out," Hunter said. "You can't move it. These big guys run into him and they're going 'oh my god.'

"I don't know where his top end is going to be. He's probably a maybe 35-goal scorer, and that's what we're hoping for."

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About the Author

Eric was the winner of the Hockey Hall Of Fame's Elmer Ferguson award for "distinguished contributions to hockey writing" in 2001. A graduate of the University of Western Ontario's grad school of journalism, he began covering hockey in 1978 and after spending 20 years covering the NHL and the Calgary Flames, joined The Globe in 2000. More

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