Kulemin scoring drought reaches Day 53

Maple Leafs forward Nikolai Kulemin is taken down by Hurricanes defenceman Jaroslav Spacek in front...

Maple Leafs forward Nikolai Kulemin is taken down by Hurricanes defenceman Jaroslav Spacek in front of goaltender Cam Ward at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ont., Dec. 13, 2011. (MICHAEL PEAKE/QMI Agency)

STEVE SIMMONS, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:17 AM ET

TORONTO - Wednesday is Day 53 of the Nikolai Kulemin Watch, the least-expected turn in this ever-turning Maple Leafs season.

His last goal was scored on Oct. 22 in Montreal. That was his second of the season. Since then, a whole lot of nothing and questions are asked daily as to what to do with the slumping winger.

The Leafs have altered his line, his ice time, the way in which they use him and none of it has made much of a difference. They have poked, prodded, babied and relied on Kulemin coming off a 30-goal season and they have next to nothing to show for it. They have tried just about everything but a press box seat and, while that still seems the wrong move from afar, you have to wonder how long it will be before his hands or his head explode.

Or maybe they have already.

Late on Tuesday night, in a dreadfully uneventful game against the Carolina Hurricanes, Kulemin had the puck on his stick in the high slot, in scoring position, and he shot very high and very wide.

“I thought about a little bit,” Kulemin said. “I thought it was a good chance.”

It was yet another chance.

Which, 30 games in, makes almost no sense. If you watched Kulemin played in his time in Toronto, he has played with honesty, grit and integrity; just what this city adores. He always plays hard, works diligently, bangs around the way he’s supposed to bang, and still he’s trapped in this 0-for-ever. The kind of slump that brings an awkard and unfortunate smile to his face.

“He was noticeable on every shift,” coach Ron Wilson said. “If he keeps doing that, eventually the puck will go in for him.”

Eventually.

The question is when? Or how?

When training camp began in September, Wilson was asked if he thought Kulemin could score more than the 30 goals he contributed last season. Wilson wasn’t that optimistic but said he’d be happy “if he scores 25.”

He has scored two. He is on pace for five. Whatever it is that he isn’t doing, a number of scouts from NHL teams told me Tuesday night that if he was placed on waivers, he would be claimed by many teams.

So the Leafs don’t seem willing to bench him or press box him and they can’t send him down. They have no choice but to play a player who isn’t producing any kind of offence, which on a team in need of secondary scoring can’t count on the powerful winger for much of anything. And Wilson seems determined to play him out of this calamitous scoring slump, which is his own and his team’s self interest.

Kulemin played almost 15 minutes Tuesday, more ice time than six other Toronto forwards. Wilson is giving Kulemin top-six ice time for a bottom-six scorer, all in the belief that any minute now this nightmare will be over.

Last season, Phil Kessel led the Leafs in goal scoring with 32 and Kulemin was second with 30. Last season, he tied for the lead in even-strength points on the Leafs, which is a statistic of distinction. Two seasons ago, he was second in even-strength points. He showed that kind of difference-making.

Right now, he’s ninth on the team in scoring, 13th in goal scoring, 13th in even-strength scoring and three defencemen have more goals than him.

This is one of those unexplainable matters: He can’t continue on this way and yet he muddles on night after night, doing everything but score. Logic says it has to end because, frankly, he’s too damned talented, and yet this is 23 games without a goal.

But this isn’t just a slump, the likes of which have rarely been seen before. This is his season of despair.

“I’m not worried,” said Kulemin, who clearly looks worried. “It will come.”

Christmas will come. New Year’s will come. The playoffs will come. One of these nights Kulemin will score his third of the season and then maybe he’ll loosen the grip on his stick, pick the top corner instead of high and wide, or just become fortunate a la Tim Connolly, pushing a puck into an empty net with no goalie to be found.

Kulemin could use one of those. Something easy. Something simple. Something to make this watch of days and games go away.


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