TORONTO - Nikolai Kulemin knows the language barrier he faces can be as imposing as the toughest NHL defenceman or stingiest goaltender.
“You try and speak every day and get better at it every day,” said the sharp-shooting Russian winger after Monday’s two goals against Dallas. “I take lessons at home, I read books, but I don’t have a lot of time to do that.
“Better if you spend the time resting (for games), not being so serious about the books.”
Maple Leaf fans would gladly agree with that last sentiment. If he keeps scoring (seven goals and 13 points in 20 games), they’ll let the media worry about translating those rudimentary post-game quotes from him. Kulemin’s play usually speaks for itself, 171 games with 80 points.
The 24-year-old from Magnitogorsk is on the Leafs’ hottest line, with centre Mikhail Grabovski of Belarus and Clarke MacArthur, who jokes that he handles the duo’s publicity.
“We went out to dinner the other night in Tampa and there wasn’t much said from me,” the Lloydminster, Alta., native quipped. “I’m kind of sitting there and the two of them are talking.
“I still don’t know a word (of Russian) yet. I learned ‘pass’ and ‘shoot’ from them, then forgot it. I’ll have to catch up on that again.”
At least Kulemin can tell ‘nyet’ from ‘net’. When coach Ron Wilson urged the Leafs to go to the dirty areas to score when the club suffered through 12 goals in an eight-game losing streak, Kulemin was one of the few who heeded him.
“He’s got a great shot and he’s hard to move in and around the net,” said MacArthur. “Like right now on this little streak he’s put together (six goals in 10 games), he’s finding holes. When you can’t move a guy, it’s really hard to defend him.”
MacArthur, who has 18 points, is also complimentary of the smaller, stockier Grabovski.
“I’ve played with (big North Americans) and those two play as hard as anyone. I never see them dodge a hit, they always take one to make the play and they take some big ones. They deserve everything they get.”
Kulemin arrived at the same time Wilson did in the autumn of 2008. He had the winning goal in Wilson’s first game when Toronto upset defending Cup champion Detroit right in Joe Louis Arena and the coach has spoken fondly of him almost always since. Kulemin’s development as a reliable defensive player also endeared him to the staff.
“I don’t know how much I’ve turned him into a good defensive player, I think he came here with that,” Wilson said. “It’s coaching the offence out of him (that was a challenge). It’s not always elegant with Kulie. The first goal (Monday) goes off his leg, but he’s standing in front of the net where he should be and the second, he got off a good wrist shot and followed his own rebound.
“He’s got rough edges, but he’s so hard to play against because he’s so big and strong. Grabbo and Kulie are friends and have played a lot together here. Clarke sees this as a real opportunity to play with two guys who pay attention to the game and sit together on the bench, plot things out and then go execute them.”
At first, the shy Kulemin couldn’t do interviews without Grabovski interpreting, but he is much better at it this season and feels comfortable around town. On Tuesday night, he joined teammates waiting on tables at the club’s annual Have A Heart Dinner.
“Toronto is a nice city and my wife likes it,” Kulemin said. “Now I can speak a bit with everybody, understand everything and I can go somewhere.
“If you go to the store it’s easy. They say: ‘you’re a great customer’.”