Kulemin needs to earn keep

STEVE BUFFERY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:34 AM ET

The Maple Leafs have recalled Nikolai Kulemin from the Marlies in the hopes that the rookie winger will provide the struggling club with some much-needed goal scoring.

Yikes.

"With (Mikhail) Grabovski out of the lineup, with (Jeremy) Williams out of the lineup, we need someone -- we think -- who can score, and it will be up to Kuly to show us that he's the guy to do that," head coach Ron Wilson said yesterday, following a team practice at Lakeshore Lions Arena.

It says a lot about the depth of the Maple Leafs organization that they're leaning on Kulemin to give them an offensive shot in the arm.

In 40 games with the Leafs this season, the 22-year-old has seven goals and seven assists. In three games with the AHL Marlies, Kulemin has zero goals and zero assists. Not exactly an offensive juggernaut.

Still, with Grabovski (suspension) and Williams (shoulder) out, Kulemin appears to be the best option in terms of what the Leafs can bring up from the minors. Jiri Tlusty, 20, appears to be next on the depth chart in terms of offensive help on the farm, and he's not exactly rounding into Mike Bossy either. The Czech has seven goals in 32 games in the minors.

Still, at least in the case of Kulemin, who scored 21 goals in 57 Russian league games last season, Wilson believes there is some upside, though he pledged yesterday that as long as the Magnitogorsk native doesn't give 100% every time he pulls on a Maple Leafs uniform, he could be sent down again and again -- and that goes for all of their young players he vowed.

"This isn't a fantasy league," Wilson said. "We're not going to play people who don't deserve to play in the NHL just because of their potential. They have to earn it.

"You have to work hard every night. In our league, every game is a hard game and it will take some guys a long time to understand that," Wilson said. "More than anything it's competing, competing. Never giving up, not being pushed around."

Wilson pointed out that the powerhouse San Jose Sharks, where he coached the last five years, sent down rookie winger Devin Setoguchi six times last season.

"Where's Devin Setoguchi now?"Wilson said. "Leading their team in goals (Ed note. Setoguchi is second, with 19 goals, behind Patrick Marleau, who has 23)."

Basically, Kulemin has two games to prove that he can play hard and score at the NHL level, as Grabovski returns from a three-game suspension (for pushing a linesman on Jan.8) when the Leafs play in Atlanta on Friday. Toronto plays host to the Nashville Predators at the Air Canada Centre tonight and travel to Carolina on Thursday.

Wilson was surprisingly upbeat yesterday for a coach whose team has lost three straight games.

"I know where our talent level is," he said. "This team has to learn to work harder, to fight through adversity. And more than anything, we've just got to keep improving our fitness level. Simple as that."


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