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Maple Leafs Watch: Two rookies making noise

It’s really hard not to like Luke Schenn, even though his NHL career has barely started. In my opinion, it’s equally hard not to like Nikolai Kulemin, though I’m sure there are a lot of skeptics out there.

Here’s the thing: Expectations of Kulemin may not have been properly calculated before the Russian winger came over to Hogtown and that’s a shame, because the rookie is doing some good work on a team that is obviously struggling.

The book on Kulemin was that of a high scorer who had a Russian League championship title under his belt and used to play on a line with Pittsburgh superstar Evgeni Malkin. And while all this is true, it’s not necessarily what he would excel at in the NHL.

In fact, it’s Kulemin’s two-way game and defensive consciousness that will make him a valuable member of the Maple Leafs as the years go by. His 17 points aren’t shabby for a rookie, but if there’s anything I’d like to see him do more of in Toronto, it’s the fierce bodychecking regiment he dished out while playing for Mettalurg Magnitogorsk.

True, the youngster was demoted to the Marlies at one point this year, but let’s remember the learning curve here; he’s still a first-year NHLer. His minus-9 rating is certainly nothing to write home about, but is in fact better than the plus-minus numbers of Tomas Kaberle, Nik Antropov and Pavel Kubina.

Expect a better season next year from Kulemin, who is still getting acclimated to North American culture and a schedule that will see him play at least 25 games more than he was used to in Russia.

Meanwhile, Tuesday’s game against the Panthers brought another occasion to fete Schenn. In drilling Radek Dvorak into the boards, Schenn had his second pasting of the week, following up his destruction of the Pens’ Malkin on Saturday. The youngster punctuated that hit by feeding Tyler Kennedy haymakers when the Pittsburgh forward attempted (and failed) to avenge Malkin’s honor. There was no retribution from the Panthers, but Schenn continued to show his NHL growth, taking more chances on offense and successfully defending a 2-on-1.

But it was during an official TV timeout when Schenn made a bigger impression. The cameras turned to a Canadian soldier in the crowd, who was attending the game with his girlfriend courtesy of Schenn, who has set up Luke’s Troops as a way to support Canada’s military. Now, many hockey players do great work for charity and setting up people with game tickets is a nice way to brighten someone’s day, but let’s remember Schenn is still a teenager. The fact he is already committed to a cause and is seeing it through speaks volumes of the young defenseman’s character; it’s not hard to see his leadership skills developing.

While we’re on the topic of Schenns, Luke’s younger brother Brayden is making noise as a potential first round draft pick of the Buds this summer, based on the quality of his play and lack thereof on the part of the Leafs. Naturally, draft position will determine a lot, but as a quick preview, Brayden is seen as a two-way center who plays a strong, physical game. At the high end of the scale, that means he’ll be similar to young Flyers captain Mike Richards. Lessen expectations and he’s Rob Niedermayer, the very poised (but not offensively-inclined) checker and Stanley Cup winner with Anaheim.

While a top-notch goal-scorer is needed more, at this point, I’m sure Leafs fans would have no problem with another Schenn in the house.

This article also appears in the Toronto Metro newspaper.

Ryan Kennedy is a writer for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to His blog appears Monday and Wednesday, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his prospect-watch feature, The Hot List appears Tuesdays.

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