TORONTO – Rookie left-winger Nikolai Kulemin is looking like a major find for the Toronto Maple Leafs, while veteran forward Matt Stajan is struggling to adapt to the demands of new head coach Ron Wilson.
Kulemin, a 22-year-old Russian taken 44th in the NHL draft two years ago, is fast, defensively responsible and has a great work ethic. He was never projected for first-line sniper status. A third-line checker – that’s what most of the scouts saw in his big-league future.
Kulemin scored 21 goals in 57 games with Russian club team Magnitogorsk Metallurg last season. Before that, he got little attention skating in the shadow of then-teammate Evgeni Malkin.
Wilson is giving the six-foot, 183-pound Kulemin all the opportunity in the world to strut his stuff, and he’s responded wonderfully after being given a top-six forward’s role. He scored two goals when the Leafs took three of a possible six points in the opening week of the new season.
“We’re going to give our young people opportunity to play,” Wilson said after practice Wednesday. “They’ve got tremendous offensive potential and the only way we’re going to develop it is by playing them.”
Kulemin, who wears No. 41, is saying little because his command of the English language is limited and he’s still feeling his way in a new life in Canada. His US$850,000 salary will no doubt make the adjustment an enjoyable one. On the ice, if he keeps progressing the way he has during the last year, he’ll soon have plenty to talk about.
Stajan would love an opportunity to play, too. He’ll get it Friday in New York where the Leafs take on the Rangers. They then move on to Pittsburgh to face the Penguins on Saturday night.
Stajan was a healthy scratch for the first time since March 2006 when the visiting St. Louis Blues won 5-4 in a shootout Monday.
“Matt’s just got to play better than he’s been playing – period,” Wilson said.
Wilson demands an up-tempo pace, while insisting on stick-like-glue checking, too.
“Other guys have adjusted,” Wilson said. “(Stajan) hasn’t, so he’s probably just finding out what the parameters of the job are.”
Stajan is an unspectacular third-or fourth-liner. There’s not much that’s negative about his defensive play but, if he can’t contribute more offensively than he has in the past, he’ll remain in Wilson’s doghouse. He’ll reappear against the Rangers in place of Ryan Hollweg, who’ll begin a three-game league suspension as a repeat offender for checking from behind.
“I’ll keep working and, hopefully, things start going better than they have,” Stajan said after practice. “Right now, things aren’t bouncing my way.
“I’ve been battling the puck. It’s too bad I haven’t shown anything earlier. It’s hard to sit out. I’ll keep my head up and go out and play hard and do whatever I can do to help the team win. Obviously, I’ve got something to prove to (Wilson) now.”
He’d be the last player to mope.
“I’m behind this team 100 per cent and, hopefully, I’ll get my chance to get back in there to play and help contribute,” Stajan said.
Wilson and Hollweg huddled at the team’s lakeshore practice facility. Hollweg’s latest transgression sent rookie Blues defenceman Alex Pietrangelo crashing to the ice on a hit from behind.
“We talked about the danger of those types of hits, and it’s going to get worse if he keeps hitting (from behind),” said Wilson. “We need him to play, we need him to play a lot.
“He’s a very effective player, and he’s one of our more enthusiastic guys in the room. Being suspended is not helping our cause.
“He’s got to be a lot more aware when he’s going in to finish his checks when somebody’s in a vulnerable position. If he keeps doing it, he keeps getting suspended, and the next one could be a very long suspension.”
Wilson was asked if Hollweg has malicious intentions when he steps onto the ice.
“No, not that I know of,” he replied. “But there seems to be no filter.
“We’ve got to find a way of putting an effective filter in there. He looks up and sees a guy’s number and he should be really thinking about pulling up. It’s going to be up to him to figure that out or he won’t be playing very many games.”
Notes: Kulemin’s two goals were scored on only four shots on goal. Jason Blake has one goal after a team-high 15 shots on goal . . . D Jonas Frogren, who missed the Monday game with a bruised foot from blocking a shot during the 6-1 loss to Montreal last Saturday, might suit up against the Rangers . . . D Jeff Finger, who has yet to play for his new team, will remain out till next week with a foot injury . . . C Nik Antropov is a team-best plus-3 on the plus-minus chart . . . Mats Sundin, the all-time Leafs scoring leader, is back in town after spending the summer in Sweden. The unrestricted free agent continues to mull over his future . . . Toronto’s next home game is Tuesday against Anaheim.