It was a typical Don Cherry rant, albeit a little bit more nasty than usual.
In breaking down the Toronto Maple Leafs first goal against in what became a 5-4 overtime loss to the Winnipeg Jets Saturday night, the Coach’s Corner icon pointed his finger squarely at forward Nikolai Kulemin, the veteran winger who had bobbled the puck and watched it end up in his own net.
The play was hardly only Kulemin’s fault, as the pass from defenceman Tim Gleason came while an attacker was already on the scene and netminder James Reimer let the eventual shot – from a wide open Jets player – slip through him.
“If somebody can tell me what this Kulemin does… This guy is getting $3-million a year,” Cherry said in his rant to lead off the segment. “He doesn’t score, he’s got seven [goals a season] for the last three years. He doesn’t hit, he doesn’t fight and he takes a regular shift. And he gives the puck away.”
Asked if he had heard about the criticism, Kulemin explained that he simply hadn’t had time.
And he doesn’t typically watch Cherry anyway.
“That’s his opinion,” Kulemin said. “No, I’m not a big fan of him.”
Kulemin is an interesting case, as he has been one of the few mainstays on the Leafs roster the last six seasons. Drafted in the second round in 2006, he made his NHL debut as a 22-year-old in 2008 and has since played 393 regular-season games, by far the most in a Toronto uniform in that span.
His offensive production in that time has been all over the place, from a high of 30 goals in 2010-11 to a low of seven goals in 70 games the following season. This year hasn’t been much better, with only 15 points in 42 games, but Kulemin has been played in an extremely defensive role with Jay McClement and David Clarkson much of the year.
The last few games, Leafs coach Randy Carlyle has bumped him up to a second line with Nazem Kadri and Joffrey Lupul, a combination that appeared to be working, as Kulemin has four points in his last six games.
He also remains one of Toronto’s few solid two-way forwards and hardly the one deserving of blame for piling up giveaways the way Cherry made it sound on Saturday.
But where exactly Kulemin’s offence has gone in general has been a mystery. Despite owning a heavy shot, for example, his shots per game totals have cratered from a high of 2.1 per game in his breakout year to half that this season, some of which is attributable to his role and linemates.
Kulemin was also a big time producer in the KHL during the lockout last season, with 38 points in 36 games while playing with hometown pal Evgeni Malkin – evidence that more should be there if the Leafs can find a way to tap it.
Those two are likely to be reunited on a powerful line at the Olympics for Russia next month, with early indications being that Kulemin may play with Malkin and Alex Ovechkin.
“We’ve had a few meetings about it,” Kulemin said of his conversation with Leafs coaches over his lack of offence. “They tell me what to do, and I try to do it. I’m trying to find a way to score, to shoot the puck more.
“I played first line there [in the KHL] – I played the whole power plays. It helped me a lot to feel more confident in scoring, playing more offence. I’m trying to find my confidence here, too.”
The biggest question on Kulemin, however, is what the Leafs will do with him in the off-season. He is in the final year of a deal with a $2.8-million cap hit and can probably get more than that in free agency, especially from a team that sees more offensive potential in him than Carlyle has so far.
With Toronto’s cap situation not leaving a lot of wiggle room to improve on the blueline, it’s expected this will be Kulemin’s last season with the team.
But for all the ripping on him for his lack of offence, he has easily out produced the team’s huge free agent signing, Clarkson, in very similar usage. Kulemin has 15 even strength points to Clarkson’s six despite similar minutes overall (569 to 529 at evens) and isn’t getting any power play time at all.
Add in his work on the penalty kill – where he’s been more reliable than most teammates, both last season and this one – and Kulemin’s brought a lot of quiet value for a contract that isn’t that much above the league average.
Even if he doesn’t hit or fight as much as some would like.
“I’m just trying to get my job done and work hard every game, every shift,” Kulemin said. “Just help the team.”