Kulemin still a work in progress

ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 6:55 PM ET

Brian Burke has no problem spending every penny he’s allowed under the NHL salary cap.

But the Maple Leafs general manager refuses to reward players with bloated contracts based on one decent season on a team that finished well outside of the playoffs.

“When the team stinks, (players) get ice-time they don’t deserve,” Burke said Sunday in an interview, referring to the stalemate in contract talks with restricted free agent forward Nikolai Kulemin.

“We’re not going to pay a player money for situational ice time he gets by default.”

Kulemin, a mildly promising youngster, had a breakthrough season for the Leafs last year. The Russian winger had 16 goals and 22 assists, credible production on a poor team, but hardly qualifying him as an elite NHL forward.

While the Leafs can’t afford to be tossing away young players with potential, Burke isn’t going to be held hostage by Kulemin, who clearly benefitted from the patience and confidence the Leafs coaching staff placed in him.

While there’s no doubt that the 23-year-old has some upside, and his willingness to use his size as a physical tool fits Burke’s model, he is still a work in progress and would have difficulty cracking the top two lines on the majority of NHL rosters.

“Nikolai Kulemin is a good player and we want to re-sign him,” Burke said. “He’s also a good person. But we’re not paying him first-line money. We’re not doing that. If he wants first-line money, he can go somewhere else.”

The Leafs avoided two similar negotiations at the trade deadline when they shipped Matt Stajan and Ian White to Calgary in the deal that brought in Dion Phaneuf.

Stajan signed a four-year extension with the Flames worth close to $14 million US, money the Leafs wouldn’t have dreamed of spending on him. And White, a restricted free agent, is currently at loggerheads with Flames over a new deal. Like Kulemin (and Dominic Moore before him), White was an ordinary player who was given extraordinary minutes in Toronto because of the thinness of the roster. It can be argued that one of the reasons White was shipped was because the Leafs knew his contract demands would be unreasonable.

As it stands now, the NHL entry draft later this month may be one of the quietest in Leafs history. But June promises to be anything but a slow month for Burke and his struggling NHL franchise.

The GM continues to lay the groundwork for what he hopes will be a productive period between the draft — which takes place June 25-26 in Los Angeles — and the opening of NHL free agency on July 1.

The highest-profile order of business is that of defenceman Tomas Kaberle, currently protected by a no-trade clause. When the draft is declared open that cloak disappears, and any and all offers will be heard by Leafs brass.

So far, Burke is playing this one with a flair that would qualify him for the final table at the World Series of Poker. Publicly he is admitting he wouldn’t mind one bit if Kaberle remained a Leaf while, at the same time, hanging a for sale sign on the Czech.

This past week, Burke and his right-hand man, Dave Nonis, made sure all 29 GMs were made aware of Kaberle’s availability and the terms of the no-trade caveat built in to his contract by former GM John Ferguson.

While that may seem to be a mixed message from Burke, it is anything but. A Leafs source confirms a handful of teams already have put out feelers on Kaberle and the more that do so will only increase Burke’s bargaining power.

As with Kulemin, however, the Burke isn’t about to do anything unless he believes the price is right.

rob.longley@sunmedia.ca


Videos

Photos