Nothing lost in translation

ROB LONGLEY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:30 AM ET

He has his personal dressing room translator in Nik Antropov, but in the universal language of hockey, Maple Leafs rookie Nikolai Kulemin is speaking clear enough on his own.

With two goals through three games -- both of them highlight-quality efforts -- the native of Magnitogorsk, Russia is adapting well to the North American game and showing Leafs fans a glimpse of scoring potential that is all too rare on the young roster.

"I don't understand everything, but the hockey is pretty easy to pick up," Kulemin said through his fellow Russian-speaking teammate following yesterday's practice at Lakeshore Lions Arena. "I know what my linemates are talking about. And I have (Antropov and Alexei Ponikarovsky to help with the language)."

While coach Ron Wilson isn't about to tout the Leafs' second-round pick in the 2006 entry draft as Calder Trophy material, the early reviews are good.

Kulemin's NHL career began with a bang when he scored the game winner on a breakaway in the season opener in Detroit and continued with another flashy individual effort against St. Louis this past Monday.

While Wilson has limited Kulemin's ice time to an average of just under 13 minutes per game, he didn't hesitate to use him in the shootout against the Blues and the Russian responded with the only Leafs goal.

"He knows how to score," Wilson said yesterday before the team headed out to New York for its first back-to-back road series of the season -- tonight against the Rangers and tomorrow in Pittsburgh.

"He scored in a big-time league in Russia so there is no reason to think he can't put some numbers up here. Considering it's his first year, anything from 15 to 20 (goals) would be reasonable, but you never know. If I get him a little more (ice time) on the power play and other situations, maybe he could get up to 30."

A word of caution here: Even though he leads the team in goals, Kulemin has just four shots on net through three games, so let's not get carried away.

But as Wilson suggests, the 22-year-old has some professional pedigree to suggest an intriguing upside.

While playing for Magnitogorsk in the Russian Super League the previous two seasons, Kulemin led his team in goals. In 2006-07, he was second in the league in goals with 27 in 54 games, a total Wilson said could loosely translate to 40 in the NHL.

And in 2005, he played alongside Penguins star Evgeni Malkin, a fellow Magnitogorsk native, who was born two weeks later than Kulemin.

"We were born the same year and we were on the same team since we were four or five years old," Kulemin said of Malkin, who he will face tomorrow in Pittsburgh. "He is really easy to play with. It's like he has eyes in the back of his head. It's going to be interesting to play against him at the NHL level."

As for Kulemin's halting English, Wilson says communication hasn't been an issue to this point.

"He understands more English than you think he does, the easiest thing to say is 'no speak English,' " Wilson said. "I'm not explaining rocket science to him. It's hockey. He understands a lot of the terms. You say forecheck, he knows what you are talking about."


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