When the Russian Super League’s season awards were handed out in late May, no one was surprised when the Rookie of the Year went straight to Metallurg’s Nikolai Kulemin. However, no one would have guessed it before the season got started.
He came virtually from nowhere. Kulemin has been in Metallurg’s system since 2002. Kulemin started with Metallurg-86 then got to play for the farm team and occasionally appeared on the main team’s roster but didn’t have the chance to make any significant impact. He participated in international tournaments playing for the U-18 team, but still was off the North American scouts’ radars. Things started to change when Dave King came to ‘Magnitka’ as head coach. He was truly elated with Kulemin’s work ethic and thought the guy had every compelling asset to develop into a stellar forward. Kulemin was trusted with a spot on the roster and didn’t let his coach down.
While his superstar teammate Evgeni Malkin (PIT) constantly leaves any crowd in astonishment by his exceptional skills, Kulemin’s contribution isn’t nearly as conspicuous but arguably as necessary. Every team needs the kind of player who can do the bulk of the work on offense, sometimes comply with the tedious forechecking duties, pick up the loose puck in the neutral zone and dispatch it to the go-to players or stay back to cover for the defensemen. Kulemin can do it all, and can do it pretty well. However, his value goes far beyond that.
Even though Kulemin has a history of performing at the international level, his true value was recognized only after the 2006 World Juniors in Vancouver. Kulemin, being under coach Dave King’s guidance, had a great first round of the regular season and earned a spot on the national junior team which headed to Canada in December for the WJC. He could have been considered the best player of the team had he not been overshadowed by Malkin who also participated in that tournament and was voted the MVP.
Kulemin not only put up impressive numbers scoring two goals and two assists in two round robin games, but also carried his team through the challenging semifinal contest against Team USA, which was heavily favored to win the gold. Russia won 5-1; though the score is quite misleading for this game was more of a nail-biter than a one-sided contest. The tooth and nail matchup got even more intense after the tie was broken by Kulemin who scored the first goal as the first period was drawing to a close. Russians were under pressure and it looked like the US was about to get back but Kulemin added another one when his team was shorthanded in the second, which pretty much decided the game. The US never came back and he was named the player of the game after demonstrating his ability to be a great clutch performer. Truly he seems to be deceptively calm when put in a tough situation and always keeps his mind clear no matter what the circumstance is. Players like Kulemin often turn out to be the difference makers when they accomplish the tasks that the weary team leaders fail to.
Kulemin got a sort of a promotion when Team Russia head coach Vladimir Krikunov invited him to participate in the World Championship 2006 in Riga. More so, he wasn’t expected to just be a filler; he got to join the team’s prime line that featured Alexander Ovechkin and Malkin. Once again he didn’t let his team down. Kulemin was doing the job of battling for the puck along the boards, clearing up the space for his linemates and bolstering his line’s defensive unit comprised of offensive defenseman Kirill Koltsov (VAN) and Vitali Atyuushov. He was a perfect fit because of his team-first attitude and his ability to beat the zone coverage that the opposition often used against Malkin & Co. The only setback was Krikunov’s lack of faith in Kulemin as a special teams performer. Maxim Sushinski took his place on Ovechkin’s line on power play and once the quarterfinals arrived, Kulemin was moved to another line and didn’t see too much ice time which didn’t prevent him from being one of the best players on the ice against Czech Republic.
As regards Kulemin’s hockey skills, he’s a player who possesses great speed, very good acceleration and a fast and accurate shot, especially when he gets to shoot from medium distance. Kulemin is a well-balanced skater with good size (6’0, 201 lbs) who can check but doesn’t overuse this ability. He doesn’t hang on to the puck for too long when it’s not necessary, makes the right decisions more often than not when in possession of the puck. Kulemin’s got very good hockey sense, you can often see him picking up the rebounds, intercepting passes in the neutral zone and making timely and accurate go-ahead passes. However, he still needs to improve the defensive aspect of his game. The pace at which he’s been improving has been unbelievably fast. Kulemin’s potential and the rate of progress he’s shown gives us a reason to think he could jump from a talented young player to the centerpiece of Metallurg’s offense as soon as next season.
Kulemin’s main problem could be getting constantly overshadowed by his Metallurg and Team Russia teammate Malkin. As Malkin is always seen as the bellwether on any team he’s on and is expected to be the guy top look up to, Kulemin doesn’t get nearly as much respect and has to overcome too many hurdles on his way to recognition as one of Russia’s prime talents. He mostly gets to play second fiddle to Malkin and other prominent players leaving him in the background for the fans and for the media. The attention he’s getting now is long overdue, but the time is about right. Kulemin’s had the opportunity to do his work without worrying about living up to the expectations that weren’t too high just a year ago. He got a good share of experience of playing on the arguably top team of the World’s second-best league staying consistently competitive and showing improvement from one outing to another.
In the draft, he could go as high as the second round, but it’s hard to tell with the recent cautiousness in taking Russian players. No matter when he winds up, he’ll have to endeavor to prove his value and make it to the NHL. It puts Kulemin into familiar territory, all he’s got to do in order to succeed is to keep up the good work.
Hockey’s Future caught up with Kulemin on the first day of the NHL Combine last week. Like many of the European prospects, the Russian skater arrived on Monday and started interviewing with the NHL clubs on Tuesday morning. A 20-year-old winger, Kulemin is ranked 25th among European Skaters by NHL Central Scouting. He moved up significantly from the mid-term rankings (61), due, in part, to an excellent performance at the U20 World Junior Championships in Vancouver. His stock will probably rise again after the Combine, where his fitness testing results were off the charts. His upper body, arm, and leg strength were among the very best of the 109 prospects tested.
When HF interviewed Kulemin, he had not yet undergone his medical or fitness testing, and although he seemed confident in his abilities, he looked a little overwhelmed at what was taking place. Kulemin speaks little or no English, so this interview was conducted through an interpreter.
HF: I know that you just arrived yesterday and your interviews started this morning. How many interviews have you had today?
NK: I had four interviews today, with the Minnesota Wild, the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Columbus Blue Jackets, and the New York Rangers.
HF: What kinds of questions did the teams ask you?
NK: They basically wanted to know why they should choose me over another player. They also wanted to know when I planned to come over to play in North America.
HF: How did you answer those questions?
NK: I told them that if they choose me that I will work as hard as I can to make the team a winning team; that I always come to play and put forth my best efforts on every shift. I also told them that I am ready to come to North America, and that I really want to and will be able to learn English very fast.
HF: Do you have any other interviews scheduled during the Combine?
NK: Yes, I have interviews with 11 teams tomorrow.
HF: Did you do any preparation for the interviews before coming to the Combine?
NK: Just with my coach on the plane. He asked me some questions and saw how I reacted.
HF: Did you do any special preparation for the fitness portion of the Combine?
NK: No, I just did my regular workouts.
HF: I know that the team personnel are probably asking you the following questions too, so this will be more preparation for the 11 meetings you have tomorrow. What do you consider to be the strengths of your game? Is there any one thing you can name?
NK: Of course, I can skate and put the puck in the net, but my biggest asset is my work ethic. I am completely geared toward advancing to the next level in hockey, and I am working all the time to get there.
HF: In your opinion, what will you have to improve on to make it to the NHL?
NK: I need to mentally prepare myself, in that I need to believe in myself at all times. I must play with confidence.
HF: What makes you stand out from other Russian players of your age? What makes you different?
NK: I have a large amount of international experience that has really helped my game. Also I have been playing against older players for quite some time.
HF: Do you have any preference as to whether you play in the United States or Canada?
NK: It makes no difference which of the two countries I play in. I am just excited to get a chance to play in North America.
HF: What are your travel plans for the next month?
NK: My coach and I will return to Russia right after the Combine and then will come back to Canada before the draft in Vancouver.
Sergei Balashov and Leslie Treff contributed to this article. Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.