What’s wrong with Nikolai Kulemin?

Nikolai Kulemin

Over the past few season, Nikolai Kulemin has been among the most consistent Leafs forwards. But through 28 games of the 2011-12 campaign, he’s been among their most disappointing.

Kulemin was held pointless in the Leafs’ 3-2 loss to the New Jersey Devils on Dec. 6, extending his goalless drought to a career-high 20 games. After showing steady improvement over his first two seasons in the league, Kulemin’s production has dropped off the map. Why?

For one thing, you can’t score if you don’t shoot: Kulemin has failed to register a shot on goal during the Leafs’ past four games. He’s managed just 40 shots on goal so far this season, which puts him on pace for 117 on the year. That would be the lowest output of his career.

But even when Kulemin is getting pucks on net, they’re not going in for him. Last year, he lit the lamp 17.3 per cent of the time en route to a 30-goal campaign. This year, his shooting percentage has dropped to an anemic five per cent, tallying only 2 goals.

To be fair, it’s been a tough year for Kulemin off the ice. He lost one of his good friends, former Leaf Igor Larionov in that devestating Lokomotiv Yaroslavl plane crash this summer.

Now, Kulemin is playing like he’s lost his confidence on the ice, which was exemplified during the Leafs’ 4-2 win over the New York Rangers on Dec. 5. During that game, Kulemin picked up the puck in the neutral zone, setting up a 2-on-1 for the Buds. With the Rangers’ defenseman cheating, Kulemin had space to drive to the net — like he did so well for much of last year — and get a shot on Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist. Instead, he passed the puck, got it back, and missed the net entirely.

Leafs coach Ron Wilson told the Toronto Sun’s Steve Buffery that he’s not overly concerned with Kulemin’s play… yet:

“We’ve talked,” said Wilson. “We’re being as encouraging as we possibly can. The puck is eventually going to go in the net. He’s getting opportunities, but he’s a forechecker and unfortunately he hasn’t had much — and I keep using this term — puck luck this year. But he’s contributing in other ways and he’s eventually going to score. And once he scores, there will probably be a number of goals coming from him in a flood. That’s what I would hope.”

For all the faith Wilson professes to have in the 25-year-old, Kulemin played a season-low 10:52 in the game after that article was published.

Perhaps his reduced offensive output is symptomatic of the diminished role for his line with Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur. Last year, they were unquestionably the Leafs’ top line; this year, because of injuries and inconsistency, they just haven’t been able to get rolling like they did a season ago. While neither of his linemates have had outstanding seasons, it’s Kulemin’s game that’s dropped off most noticeably. And recently, Wilson has been splitting the line up – when they’re all in the lineup, that is.

For a Leafs offense that is leaning heavily on the output of Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul and Tyler Bozak, secondary scoring will be a crucial element if the team hopes to get in to the playoffs. So far, the Leafs’ dependence on their top line hasn’t come back to bite them.

But over the course of the season, you can bet that it will. Opposing teams are focusing heavily on the top trio, and it will be up to players like Kulemin to shoulder some of the offensive load.

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