Great expectations

MIKE ZEISBERGER -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:45 AM ET

When Pittsburgh Penguins star Evgeni Malkin said last spring that Nikolai Kulemin "is going to be a good NHL player," it only added to the intrigue surrounding this kid.

Because he has been playing with Russian team Magnitogorsk since being drafted 44th overall by the Maple Leafs in 2006, a sense of anticipation has been building up at the prospect of finally seeing how the skilled Russian forward can handle his first kick at the NHL can.

Accompanied by big expectations and, perhaps, an unfair amount of hype, Kulemin was on the ice at Lakeshore Lions Arena yesterday, preparing to answer the many questions surrounding his arrival in North America.

Just don't expect him to answer those questions in English. He needs work there.

Enter fellow newcomer Mikhail Grabovski, who offers to play the role of interpreter for Kulemin. Nice gesture. Whether they will be able to work this well together on the ice remains to be seen.

"I'm very happy and excited to be here," Kulemin said via Grabovski. "To play in the NHL is a big dream for me."

The 22-year-old Kulemin scored 21 times in 57 games last season for Magnitogorsk, where he skated alongside Malkin during the 2005-06 season.

"I really liked playing with him," Kulemin said. "He's a great player."

In Kulemin and Grabovski, the Leafs have two skilled forwards in their early 20s who have tremendous upsides, but who also must refine their games from the wide-open pond-hockey mentality they exhibit at times.

"(Kulemin) proved he could score in the Russian elite league," Leafs general manager Cliff Fletcher said. "I won't go overboard and predict what impact he'll have on the team.

"Both these guys are offensive players who will be with us when the season starts Oct. 9. What should we expect from them out of the gate? I don't know. Let's see how they fare in the pre-season."

Grabovski, 24, was acquired from the Montreal Canadiens on July 3 for the rights to Greg Pateryn and a 2010 second-round pick. His forte is his speed, although some scouts claim he hangs on to the puck too long.

It was clear Grabovski was seeking a change of scenery. He just was not seeing enough playing time with the Canadiens for his own liking.

FRUSTRATED

The issue came to a head late last season. Frustrated at being a healthy scratch for a March 6 contest in Phoenix, Grabovski flew to L.A. ahead of his teammates to speak to his agent, creating instant controversy in Montreal.

Fletcher, meanwhile, needed no convincing of Grabovski's skills. When the opportunity came up to grab the young centre from Belarus, Fletcher snatched it.

"I saw him play a game for the Hamilton Bulldogs against the Marlies and he totally dominated," Fletcher said. "So, when we sat down and discussed the young players we might be able to pick up over the summer, we thought he was the best one we could get our hands on."

Grabovski flourished during his brief stint in the AHL last season, accruing 20 points in just 12 games.

"I'm very happy," he said. "I have a lot of friends here."

He and Kulemin will have even more friends around here should they combine for some big offensive numbers.


Photos