TORONTO – Nikolai Kulemin is far from a forgotten man for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
As the quietest member of the team, the Russian winger rarely does interviews and tends to fly below the radar. But he’s been making plenty of noise with his play in the pre-season, giving the Leafs some hope that they’ll feature a more balanced attack when the games start counting.
Kulemin scored twice in Toronto’s 5-4 win over Buffalo on Monday night to run his pre-season total to four. That matches him for the team lead with Phil Kessel, who also chipped in two against the Sabres.
Leafs coach Ron Wilson likes what he’s been seeing from the 24-year-old so far.
“He’s shooting the puck more,” said Wilson. “He doesn’t overhandle it, he gets it to the puck carriers and drives his feet. Hopefully, these aren’t just goals in pre-season, they continue in the regular season.
“He’s got a great shot. It’s a great release, too.”
Kulemin finished last season on the top line with Kessel and Tyler Bozak. He’s been dropped to the second unit during training camp in favour of Kris Versteeg, but the move wasn’t intended as a demotion.
Wilson likes the chemistry he has with Mikhail Grabovski, and newcomer Clarke MacArthur has fit in well with that duo.
Some feel that Kulemin might be capable of scoring 25 goals this season—”Yeah, why not?” he says—which would be a big boost to the team’s overall attack. The Leafs finished 25th in goals per game a year ago and are looking for an improvement in that area.
“I feel good,” said Kulemin. “It’s a good team, a great atmosphere around (the team).”
With just three exhibition games remaining, Wilson is focused on finding chemistry. The lineup he dressed on Monday will likely be pretty close to the one that starts the season on Oct. 7 against Montreal.
All four Leaf forward units showed some promise against Buffalo on a night where the teams seemed content to trade chances.
“I really liked our lineup,” said captain Dion Phaneuf. “I really like our team. We have a lot of guys who have played very well throughout camp.”
Christian Hanson had the other goal for Toronto (3-2-1). Nathan Gerbe, with two, Drew Stafford and Jordan Leopold replied for the Sabres (1-1-0).
Buffalo has taken a different approach to its pre-season routine and was playing just its second game. As a result, coach Lindy Ruff only used about two-thirds of the lineup he’ll start the season with.
“We saw some pretty good players,” he said. “That was basically Toronto’s team and Toronto’s defence. It was a game where you could do some evaluating.”
If there’s an area of concern for the Leafs, it might be defensive play. The team has surrendered 18 goals through six exhibition games, but Monday night was the first time Wilson used his top six defencemen in the same game.
He plans to work with the group now that the team’s roster has been trimmed to a more manageable number.
“They haven’t played very much,” said Wilson. “I need to get them a lot of work before the season starts in terms of moving pucks quickly. At times, all of them seem to have happy feet in the sense of getting out of position in rush situations.
“So we’ve got to work on that.”
The teams traded the lead throughout the night and went to the third period tied 3-3.
Two goals in a span of 65 seconds against Sabres backup Jhonas Enroth provided the winning margin. Kulemin beat him with a quick wrist shot at 9:55 before Hanson used linemate Colton Orr as a screen to scores his first of the pre-season at 11:00.
Even though Gerbe’s second of the night came on a penalty shot at 12:08, the Leafs managed to hang on from there.
After getting the first true look at what the team could be like, the players seemed encouraged. But they know the building has just begun.
“It’s going to come over time,” said Versteeg. “We’ve got a lot of new faces and we’re going to go out there and put it together over time. Not just a game or two.”
Notes:Nazem Kadri and John Mitchell, both on the bubble, were scratched by the Leafs … The Sabres face the Senators on Thursdayin Dundas, Ont., for the Kraft Hockeyville game … Leafs winger Fredrik Sjostrom is expected to return from off-season shoulder surgery for Wednesday’s game at Ottawa … Announced attendance at Air Canada Centre was 18,096.