Leafs aim for Russian connection

ROB LONGLEY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 4:26 AM ET

Some things will take more time for Maple Leafs rookie Nikolai Kulemin to master.

Like meeting with the media as the young Russian continues to struggle with the process of learning English.

Or to that end, communicating during his games with his newest centre, Matt Stajan.

And most importantly to those who believe he has the talent to be a top-six forward with the team, displaying the scoring touch that he has shown on occasion, especially earlier in the season.

Kulemin, a second-round pick by the Leafs in the 2006 entry draft, gets a big chance to move forward starting tonight at the Air Canada Centre.

Leafs coach Ron Wilson confirmed yesterday that Kulemin will be shifted to the team's top line with Stajan and fellow Russian-speaking forward Nik Antropov when the Leafs face the New Jersey Devils in a bid for their first three-game winning streak of the season.

"Everybody knows (Kulemin) is a good skater, but he's still getting used to the style of play," Antropov said following yesterday's practice at Lakeshore Lions Arena. "He can shoot, he can skate and he can score, but it's the transition from Russia (that is holding him back.)

"It's just a matter of time before he gets used to this type of game."

For most of the season, Kulemin has been on the wing of a line with Nik Hagman and Mikhail Grabovski. The native of Magnitogorsk, Russia, has six goals and six assists in 29 games but just three points in the past 12.

With Hagman out because of the lingering effects of a concussion and the Leafs looking for some scoring spark, Wilson is shaking up things. Until Hagman returns, Grabovski will be on a unit with regular first-liner Alexei Ponikarovski and newcomer Lee Stempniak.

The coach believes that playing Kulemin with the big forward from Kazakhstan might help as Antropov has been a mentor to the young, would-be sniper.

"(Antropov) has done a really good job in explaining a lot of things to him," Wilson said. "That's why I want to have him out on that line for a while to help pick up his game.

"He struggles some nights and we are empathetic to that. I know how hard it is for him, not only the way the game is played here but you've got a completely different environment and he doesn't understand English very well.

"As a veteran, it's up to (Stajan) to sit down on the bench between shifts and anything he wants to get done translated properly through Antropov."

Antropov said the biggest difficulty for his new linemate has been adjusting to "the simplicity" of the North American game.

On the bigger ice in Russia, Kulemin's skills were allowed to flourish and he scored 27 goals in 54 games for Magnitogorsk in 2006-07 and added 21 more last year, leading his team both seasons.

"He's not afraid of hitting, I don't see him backing off any big guys," Antropov said. "(In Russia) it's bigger ice and lots of passes. Here it is just straight. But the coaches are helping him out. It's a big transition for him but it will come."


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