TORONTO – Nikolai Kulemin has been in the dark.
The Toronto Maple Leafs winger is a candidate to play for Russia at next month’s Sochi Olympics that are set to be a showcase for his home country. But with the roster being made of up some Kontinental Hockey League players in addition to NHL stars like Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk, he doesn’t really know where he stands.
“I don’t really know what they want to do,” Kulemin said last week. “It’s their decision who to bring to the team. You never know what they’re thinking.”
Kulemin, a veteran of 382 NHL games, represented Russia at the 2007 and 2010 world championships but never at the Olympics. The two-way forward was invited to Olympic camp over the summer, and he said only of his likelihood that coaches “said everybody have a chance.”
Ovechkin, Datsyuk, Malkin and former NHL-turned-KHL poster boys Ilya Kovalchuk and Alexander Radulov already take up five spots while Alexander Semin, Vladimir Tarasenko and Alexei Tereschenko are also seemingly in good shape. That means it could be a question of whether the Russian management team values Kulemin more than a comparable player from the KHL.
Kulemin has just five goals and six assists in 31 games this season after a bone chip in his ankle cost him a month. That’s ninth among Russian-born NHL forwards, though the 27-year-old is much better known for his defensive prowess.
“He’s top guy,” Ovechkin said of Kulemin earlier this season. “He can play physical game, he can make big hits, good defensive player. He’s very skilled (on) offence too.”
Ovechkin is the face of the Olympics, so any praise from him can’t hurt.
“Thank him to say that,” Kulemin said. “I would be happy to make the team and help the team in any position I would play for. We’ll see.”
One benefit Kulemin would bring is the ability to play on either wing. That’s especially valuable if Ovechkin reverts back to the left side he played his whole life until Washington Capitals coach moved him to right wing, igniting an MVP campaign.
Ovechkin’s place isn’t in question. But there’s no certainty that Kulemin will join Leafs teammates Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk—who were named to the U.S. team—in Sochi.
“I think that’d be great for him,” van Riemsdyk said. “You see how hard he works day in and day out and what he brings to our team as far as just every shift he’s out there he’s 110 per cent. You know what to expect from him. He brings a lot to the table for us out there, so I think they’d be lucky to have him on their team, too.”
Perhaps the Leafs would feel luckier if Kulemin didn’t make the cut. Asked Saturday morning about the impact of Kessel and van Riemsdyk making the U.S. team on Toronto, coach Randy Carlyle pointed to a negative aspect of NHL participation in the Olympics.
“From my experience with it in Anaheim, we had seven players go to the (2010) Olympics and we had (Ryan) Getzlaf, (Corey) Perry and Scott Niedermayer come back and they didn’t have any emotion left when they got back,” Carlyle said. “They participated in winning a gold medal, and it was difficult to get those guys back to the level that we needed them at that time, and it’s understandable.”
The Chicago Blackhawks had nine players at those Olympics, including Canadians Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, and went on to win the Stanley Cup. But the concern over the let-down is legitimate.
“It’s two or three weeks of high emotion, and the last thing on their mind is where they came from,” Carlyle said. “They’re playing for their country.”
This is especially true in the case of the Russians, who will be facing immense pressure to win gold on home ice.
Kulemin, a native of Magnitogorsk, a 35-hour drive northeast from Sochi, would love to join in that quest. He has been waiting in nervous anticipation of the roster announcement.
“We’ll see if I make the team,” Kulemin said. “I’d be so happy. But you never know.”
—Follow Stephen Whyno on Twitter at @SWhyno.