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Making A Case For Kulemin

Wednesday, 08.3.2011 / 4:16 PM ET / Mike Ulmer's Blog
By Mike Ulmer  - Mapleleafs.com commentator
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Making A Case For Kulemin
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If I was Ron Wilson I would get sick and tired of how many times Mike Ulmer started blogs with the words ‘If I was Ron Wilson.’

But I am not Ron Wilson, so I don’t care.

And because I am not Ron Wilson, I can also posit that the biggest story of the preseason will not be who plays centre for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Instead, inquiring minds, and there are many, will want to know who will play the left wing on the number one line.

Barring injury, not a completely far-fetched suggestion in view of his history, Tim Connolly will centre the top unit and take the draws for the beginning of most every power play. As you know, Connolly has been brought in to bump Phil Kessel from a thirty-something goal scorer to a forty-something goal scorer. Having tied off the Connolly’s injury angle, we should also tell you the two are astrologically in line though Connolly being a Taurus is apt to be a little bossy toward Kessel.

Cue the fanfare.

It is time Nikolai Kulemin was the Leafs’ go-to left winger. This is true because he is the team’s best all-around forward by something more than the length of a telephone pole.

Is it worth moving Kulemin away from Clarke MacArthur and Mikhail Grabovski after the three combined for 80 goals last year? Uh huh.

Because he was eased into the lineup after a back injury, Joffrey Lupul’s minute per game total is lower than Kulemin’s. A more accurate sampling comes from comparing their last five games. Lupul, the club’s number one left winger played 17:30, Kulemin 16:40.

With nine goals and 18 points in just 28 games, Lupul showed he could score somewhere between twenty to thirty goals which is good because then the second line shouldn’t miss a beat.

The Leafs number two unit was a remarkable assemblage of complimentary parts. All three members, Grabovski, Kulemin and MacArthur are excellent skaters. MacArthur thinks the game well and oddly enough acted as a conduit between his two Russian-speaking linemates.

But that line worked mostly because of Kulemin’s phenomenal ability to recover and protect the puck. He pursued it relentlessly in both ends, brought a defensive conscience to the line and still scored 30 goals, second highest on the team. Grabovski’s defensive play has improved dramatically but the trio was not a combined plus 19 because of him.

Connolly isn’t bereft of defensive awareness but Kessel’s 200-foot play was wildly inconsistent last season. In addition to supercharging an already fleet duo, Kulemin will create countless turnovers and wear out that many checkers in the offensive end. Because he is nearly impossible to knock off his skates, he provides the kind of inside the rules truculence the team covets.

If you tally the goals you should expect from the top line, say 25 from Kulemin and Connolly another 40 from a reinvigorated Kessel (call me a giddy optimist), you rekindle a top line that should command premium checking and still produce as many as 90 goals.

Facing less skilled defenders should paper over any loss caused by Kulemin’s promotion. How Ron Wilson does his job without reading this blog is a mystery to me.

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