TORONTO - When Nikolai Kulemin stepped off the ice at the MasterCard Centre of Excellence following the Maple Leafs practice on Friday, he stopped to chat with a couple of arena workers and team officials.
The big Russian was chatty and smiling.
Even in the dressing room afterwards, Kulemin appeared relaxed and perfectly happy to chat about that part of his game which everyone seems to be talking about these days, the fact that he’s in the midst of an agonizing, 18-game goal-scoring slump.
“It’s okay,” said Kulemin. “I just try to play through it and try to do my job and try to work hard all the time.”
The last time Kulemin scored was Oct. 22 in Montreal. Last season he went eight games, twice, without scoring, but remained consistent for most of the season and finished the year with the second-most goals on the team with 30 (two behind Phil Kessel).
Of course, outward appearances can be deceitful. You just know that Kulemin is aching to find the back of the net. But if it’s causing him to lose sleep, he isn’t showing it.
Perhaps having his dad, Vladimir, in Toronto has helped with his disposition (all the players dads have been invited on the road trip to Boston and New York this weekend).
Or perhaps it’s because, despite the scoring slump, he’s actually, mostly, played well, and that has the big winger in a decent state of mind.
Kulemin’s managed two goals and nine assists in 25 games, well off the 57 point pace from last season.
But he’s ‘even’ on the plus-minus charts and coach Ron Wilson isn’t ready to throw Kulemin under the bus, yet. Wilson has, however, done more than slap Kulemin on the back.
He’s looking for ways to help the second-year NHLer punch his way out of his slump.
This weekend, at least in Saturday’s game in Boston against the Bruins, Wilson will likely play Kulemin on a line with his long-time centre, Mikhail Grabovski, and Joey Crabb.
From the look of Friday’s practice, Wilson also plans to keep Clarke MacArthur, who played mostly with Grabovski and Kulemin last season, with Tim Connolly and Matt Frattin on the so-called line second line. Wilson was asked if putting Grabovski back with Kulemin will help “him” get untracked.
“Which one?” asked Wilson, not sure which player was being referred to, Grabovski, who has one point in his last seven games, or Kulemin.
“Neither’s lit up the scoreboard,” said Wilson. “But as a pair they have some chemistry so we’re actually looking to try to get some balance. I think Connolly playing with MacArthur you’ve seen some sparks flying there and this gives us an opportunity to have three lines with the potential to score.”
Last season, the MacArthur-Grabovski-Kulemin line was by far the most consistent line on the Leafs, finishing second, third and fourth in team scoring.
All but Grabovski played a full season, and Grabovski played 81 games. But this season started going south for the line early when MacArthur missed the first two games because of a suspension after he hit Detroit Red Wings forward Justin Abdelkader in the head.
Various injuries since then to MacArthur and Grabovski have prevented the unit from clicking. Now they’re all healthy, but Wilson is going to keep them apart, at least for a while. The coach insisted that he isn’t overly concerned about Kulemin’s state of mind as he feels that, sooner or later, the big winger will snap out of it.
“We’ve talked,” said Wilson. “We’re being as encouraging as we possibly can. The puck is eventually going to go in the net. He’s getting opportunities, but he’s a forechecker and unfortunately he hasn’t had much — and I keep using this term — puck luck this year. But he’s contributing in other ways and he’s eventually going to score. And once he scores, there will probably be a number of goals coming from him in a flood. That’s what I would hope.”
One of the reasons Wilson isn’t fretting about Kulemin’s slump is the fact that the rest of the team has stepped up offensively. The Leafs have scored 27 goals in the past six games. Still, Wilson is hoping that Crabb will compliment Grabovski and Kulemin and they’ll start piling up some points.
“I think Cabby’s been playing really well. He works the corners really well, plus he’s a right-hand shot and I think that will help on that line too,” said the coach.