By Josh Elliott
He’s an Olympian, a former 30-goal scorer and he skates for a team under one of the brightest spotlights in the NHL. He’s also the longest-serving Toronto Maple Leaf right now, but Nikolai Kulemin has never been a headline-grabber.
Maybe Kulemin, 27, would get more media attention if his birth certificate read Mimico instead of Magnitogorsk, but Russia’s Olympic brain trust has certainly been paying attention to him. Kulemin was named to the 25-man Russian team in January, ahead of the likes of Alexander Semin, because of what he does outside the spotlight.
“It’s really exciting and it’s going to be a good experience for me,” he said. “I’m so happy to get it.”
And though Kulemin played alongside superstars Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin before coming to North America, he likely won’t be given a scoring role on home ice in Sochi. At 6-foot-1 and 225 pounds, he’s a big-bodied forward who has slid into a defensive role on the Maple Leafs after topping out at 30 goals in 2010-11 and never coming close since.
“I’m ready for any role on the team,” Kulemin said.
Some Russian forwards get slapped with the enigma label when they come to North America, but there’s nothing enigmatic about Kulemin. His game is about good old-fashioned blue-collar work ethic.
“Defense is all about hard work and paying attention to detail and that’s what he does so well,” said goalie James Reimer. “He’s got a lot of skill, he’s got a great shot, but it’s his hard work that’s what I love about him as a teammate.”
Kulemin’s single 30-goal season riding shotgun with the now-departed Mikhail Grabovski seems like ancient history , a statistical outlier compared to his next-highest 16-goal output in 2009-10. He doesn’t score as often as he used to, but he does make them count. Three of his six goals in 2013-14 have been game-winners, which ties him for tops on the Leafs. But it’s his strength and defensive prowess that make him an important piece of the Toronto puzzle today.
“He’s the epitome of a power forward, I guess you could say,” said center Tyler Bozak. “He’s built like an ox and he’s extremely strong. He creates a lot of space for you as a linemate.”
Though armed with a wicked wrist shot, Kulemin has been employed primarily as a defensive specialist and penalty killer since coach Randy Carlyle arrived in Toronto. He led all Leafs forwards in blocked shots last season and is doing the same this season.
“It seems like he’s always in the way,” Reimer said, “either with his stick or his body.”
Added Bozak: “He’s fearless out there. There are some times when he’ll block a shot and I think it hurts the guys seeing it on the bench more than it hurts him.”
As for life under that bright Toronto spotlight, Kulemin generally flies below the radar and leaves the talking to guys like Bozak, Dion Phaneuf and Joffrey Lupul. In his early years it was the language barrier that scared off media-types, but Kulemin’s English has improved greatly in his six seasons in Toronto.
“You can carry out a whole conversation with him absolutely no problem and understand everything,” Bozak said. “He’s not extremely outspoken, but there’ll be times when he’ll crack some jokes and he gets a good laugh out of the guys.”
Kulemin is excited to compete for a gold medal in his home country and though Sochi is about a 34-hour drive from his hometown, Magnitogorsk, he still plans to have his parents, his wife and his son in the crowd for his games.
“It’s a big event for everybody, you know, especially when you play at home,” Kulemin said. “All the fans, it’s so exciting.”