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Rambler's Top100

21 января 2010 года. 
Keeping Kulemin may prove pricey. // Toronto Star

Damien Cox. 

The danger in evaluating the individual components of aruined hockey season sometimes lies in assessing too much value to the few who have actually performed well.

The classic example, of course, is the heroic goaltender on the bad team. Just because a beleaguered masked man faces a zillion shots without cowering does not necessarily mean he's a good goalie.

The challenge for Brian Burke as he analyzes his Maple Leafs, then, is to clearly identify those players who have actually achieved something more than just standing apart from the rabble.

In some cases, that evaluation is about whether those players should return next season.

In others, it's about how much they should be paid if they do stick around.

Which brings us to the complex case of Nikolai Kulemin.

To most, the 23-year-old Russian winger is one of a handful of Leafs who have delivered something close to bang for the buck this season. For a paltry $850,000 (U.S.) per season, Kulemin has made clear and identifiable strides toward being a bona fide NHLer.

He came to Toronto advertised as Evgeni Malkin's talented wingman from Magnitogorsk, but that was misleading. Instead, Kulemin, much more substantial at 220 pounds than most suspect, has started to make an impact as a grinding, physical forward more at home in tight spaces than open ice.

"He's our most improved player, his work ethic is excellent and we'd like to see him stay a Leaf," said Burke Wednesday from Boston after attending the AHL All-Star Game in snowy Portland, Maine, on Tuesday night.

That said, heading into Thursday night's game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Kulemin has just nine goals and nine assists. The conundrum for Burke, then, is how much to advance Kulemin on the pay scale as a restricted free agent, a conundrum complicated by the looming presence of the Kontinental Hockey League.

The KHL isn't shy about directly contacting NHL players under contract as was the case last season when Kulemin found himself in the minors.

"It's true," said Kulemin's L.A.-based agent, Gary Greenstin, Wednesday. "But if someone calls my guys they usually call me right away."

If the Leafs aren't willing to give Kulemin a significant raise, a KHL team might. With 60 KHL players set to skate in next month's Olympics, some suggest the quality of hockey in that league is underrated. Kulemin's no star, but the symbolic value of being able to lure a young player away from an Original Six franchise could be meaningful to the fledgling league.

The defections of Alexander Radulov and Jiri Hudler to the KHL in recent years have raised eyebrows, as did the return of Nikita Filatov to Moscow last fall. Only 25 Russians are playing in the NHL right now, down about 60 per cent from before the lockout.

Twenty years ago, you couldn't get Russians to come to the NHL.

Now it's a challenge to get them to stay.

"Our goal is to sign with the Maple Leafs," said Greenstin, who also represents Pavel Datsyuk and Mikhail Grabovski. "Young Russian players still love to play in the NHL. It's the best league in the world."

Right now, defenceman Ian White and Kulemin have probably worked their way to the top of the list of free agents the Leafs want to re-sign while Alexei Ponikarovsky and his 18 goals are looking like the best card the Leafs will have to play before the March 3 trade deadline.

Leaf pro scouts will convene Friday in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., as the club contemplates a trade deadline strategy and what it hopes to achieve when free agency opens July 1. Knowing what pieces are in place will be a big part of that.

The Leafs want Kulemin back. But a bidding war with a Russian team, you can be sure, isn't in the cards.

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