Kulemin getting his NHL legs

BILL LANKHOF, QMI AGENCY

, Last Updated: 8:28 AM ET

Nikolai Kulemin got to live the Canadian dream.

But, for the kid from Magnitogorsk, Russia, it might’ve been the worst thing that could’ve happened to him.

Oct. 9, 2008, he scored the game-winning goal to give the Maple Leafs a 3-2 win in the season opener over the defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings.

Sounds like a fairy tale start to a pro career.

Except that it coincided with the arrival of coach Ron Wilson and it put the 23-year-old Kulemin on a collision course with Great Expectations.

All of a sudden, there was talk of an overnight Leafs’ revival led by Wilson and a new cadre of Russian snipers like Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski.

Never happened, of course.

Kulemin finished the season with 15 goals, got bounced from line to line, was shuffled to the minors for a time and earlier this season he started four games in the press box as a healthy scratch.

The adjustment to life in North America has been slow. Kulemin’s introduction to life in the NHL has been more than a bit overwhelming.

“You look around and everything is new,” said Kulemin Monday, less than 24 hours after being named the No. 1 star in Toronto’s 3-2 loss to Buffalo. “You don’t know where the rink is, you don’t know how things work, you don’t know what to expect.

“It’s a new language, new rules and whole new lifestyle.”

He seems, after 16 months, to finally be finding his NHL legs.

After being in Wilson’s doghouse earlier this year his ice time has increased steadily from 12-13 minutes to between 17 and 18 in the past five games playing on the third line with Lee Stempniak and Wayne Primeau. He’s also been spotted as a penalty killer.

“We seem to go well together, play good in the defensive zone and I like penalty killing,” he said. “I’m getting a better idea of what people expect. In Russia, with the big ice, we didn’t learn to be so physical.”

Against the Sabres he had five hits. Playing with Stempniak and Primeau, Job One is to check. Then, check some more.

Kulemin is discovering the style the Leafs expected of him.

“Maybe we had him a bit confused as to how he should play and tried to play him on the top two lines,” said assistant coach Dale Hunter. “I think it’s best to start a player on the bottom two lines and let him find his way and he’s really done that.

“He’s a big, strong, physical player and he wasn’t using his attributes in the beginning: Be strong on the puck and using his body to defend and protect the puck. He’s starting to do that now and he’s getting room and winning battles and getting the puck.”

To succeed in the NHL he had to change his mindset.

When Kulemin tried to be a free-wheeling, goal-scorer he lost his effectiveness and it wasn’t what the Leafs thought they were getting when they picked him 44th in the 2006 draft.

“We saw a big physical power winger who was going to win battles in the corners in our end, along the boards and in front of the opposition net,” Hunter said. “When you get confused and think you’re a fancy skilled player and forget what your attributes are, your strength and size, and why you’re here, well, that’s the confusion part.

“We didn’t really relay to him what we wanted. We don’t have a big, physical team and the guys that are big and can be physical really have to use their bodies. Lately he has done that ... and not in a way that’s reckless but just using his power to win pucks.”

Off the ice, Kulemin is finding his game, too.

He and his wife welcomed a baby last March. So, he already knows more English than half the people in his own house.

Baby steps. It’s the Kulemin way.


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