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Toronto Maple Leafs forward Nikolai Kulemin celebrates his goal against the New York Rangers with teammate Mikhail Grabovski (L) during the overtime period of their NHL hockey game in Toronto March 27, 2010. REUTERS/Mike Cassese (MIKE CASSESE)
Toronto Maple Leafs forward Nikolai Kulemin celebrates his goal against the New York Rangers with teammate Mikhail Grabovski (L) during the overtime period of their NHL hockey game in Toronto March 27, 2010. REUTERS/Mike Cassese (MIKE CASSESE)

Price tag going up for Gustavsson, Kulemin Add to ...

The good news, if you're Brian Burke, is that two of your young players are playing key roles as the Leafs win games to close the season.

The bad news?

Both Jonas Gustavsson and Nikolai Kulemin will need new contracts in the off-season, and even though they're restricted free agents, the dollars attached to those deals are going up -- and could be problematic.

One thing Toronto doesn't have loads of for next season is cap space, even if they find a way to unload Jeff Finger, and how much they sign Gustavsson and Kulemin for will matter. Both have been terrific since Dion Phaneuf and J-S Giguere joined the team in late January:

The Monster is 7-1-0 with a 2.19 goals-against average and .920 save percentage, well above his earlier numbers. His positioning is far better, too. (Something I'll get into in a bit.)

Kulemin, meanwhile, is playing on the first line and more than 18 minutes a night. He's got six goals and 15 points in the 19 games since Burke's big house-cleaning and five goals and 13 points in his last 11 games after scoring the winner tonight against the Rangers.

Going into this season, Gustavsson and Kulemin -- 25 and 23 years old -- were big-time question marks. Now, they're getting pencilled in as significant parts of the rebuild-on-the-fly beginning in 2010-11.

It always seemed like Burke was going to bring Gustavsson back, but given his struggles pre-Giguere, I would have pegged his potential contract as one or two years and for about $1.5-million a season. If he continues to play like he has lately, he'll get more than that -- and suddenly the Leafs might have a lot of coin dedicated to their goalies given Giguere's $6-million hit.

Kulemin's in the same situation: Last year, only 15 goals and 31 points as a rookie, and he was on pace for about the same until pretty recently. Those aren't numbers that earn you a big raise, but now that he's playing big minutes, he's showed (in a small sample size, admittedly) that there may be more there.

I asked Ron Wilson after the win over the Rangers what he thought Kulemin's ceiling might be and if he was showing he could fit on the top line down the road.

"He's a first- or second-line forward," Wilson said. "We're not really deep in a whole bunch of high-end talent so he's going to standout right now. I think he struggled a bit tonight, he looked tired at times, but when I made the little switch, I put Kulie with Grabo, that seemed to spark him a little bit."

Not the most ringing of endorsements, but the coach said he liked what he saw on the winning goal.

"Kulie was strong as a horse on that whole play - screening the goalie - and the guy who was trying to push Kulie out of the way actually interfered with his goalie and that gave Kulie an opportunity on the wrap around and Lundqvist couldn't get there," Wilson said.

In any event, by my eyes, Kulemin's gone from looking like a 15- to 20-goal guy for his first season and a half in the NHL to potentially something a lot more valuable. He was a pretty decent scorer as a young guy in the Russian league (albeit playing with Malkin) and is way, way more confident with a lot of things now: the pace of play in North America, the language and his place on the team.

He's also a lot stronger than many people realize and defensively responsible.

Add it all up, and his agent's got to be pretty happy with recent developments.

As for what's gone right for Gustavsson, one of the things is that getting Vesa Toskala (who hardly spoke to the kid) out of the room and bringing in Giguere (one of the nicest, most personable guys in the league) has worked wonders for him. Burke knows Giguere well -- I see them in the dressing room chatting before games -- and likely thought that would be one of the benefits of adding him a couple months ago.

Here was Gustavsson's response to how having Giguere in the mix has helped him.

"I can just look at him and see how he plays," he said. "He's almost every time in the right position."

Didn't hear that about Toskala too often.

Gustavsson's work with goalie coach Francois Allaire also seems to be paying dividends. Erratic in the early going, all over the place on some routine saves, he's figured some of that out and has been pretty sharp for weeks. Surprisingly so.

He was asked if Allaire was finally getting happy with his play of late.

"I don't think he wants me to stretch like this," Gustavsson said. "He would rather see me save it right in the middle (of my chest). Sometimes you have to do those kinds of (pad) saves, too, everything goes so fast. You can't just push to the right place every time, sometimes you have to stretch out a little bit.

"I'm happy with my long legs. Those help me sometimes when I'm not there in the right time."

A seven-game winning streak, like the one Gustavsson has going now, is pretty impressive given it's coming with a very young Leafs team. Like I said, the sample size is small, but he looks far more like a potential No. 1 netminder-in-progress than he had previously.

That's all good news, in a lot of ways, for the organization, but likely to make the cap situation even more of a squeeze. Cap guru Matt Wuest has the figures for next season at $48.8-million already spent and about $12-million in wiggle room with another six or seven players to be signed (including Gustavsson and Kulemin). Assuming they come in at a combined $5- to $7-million per season, there's really not a lot of dough left to add to this roster.

It'll be interesting how Burke works those contracts because these two are staying.

 

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