The case of Nikolai Kulemin is an interesting one. It may be hard to believe but Kulemin is actually the longest serving member of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Drafted in the 2nd round, 44th overall, in the 2006 draft, Nikolai Kulemin has been one of the few examples of a home grown talent. Granted, he's not actually from Toronto but rather from Magnitogorsk, Russia, but you get the point.
At 27 years old, standing at 6'1", 225 lbs, Kulemin provides a well rounded combination of size, speed and defensive ability. Obviously, the offensive skill in his game as significantly dropped off in recent years due to a variety of factors stemming from no longer being played in very many offensive situations. In his only 30 goal season, Kulemin formed a natural chemistry with the now departed Mikhail Grabovski, Kulemin went from playing over 2 minutes per game on the powerplay to a meager 4 seconds per game this season. With the decreased offensive opportunities and increased defensive responsibilities, Kulemin hasn't complained once. Despite the stigma still attached by some, the "lazy Russian" has been everything but lazy, contributing to killing penalties and playing a checking role without complaint.
Fortunately, when the Leafs offered Kulemin a contract extension after his 30 goal season, he wasn't given more than he really deserved. Unlike his linemate Grabovski, who was deemed overpaid and bought out, Kulemin stuck around at a very reasonable 2.8 million dollar cap hit. But at 27, turning 28 in July, Kulemin is about to become an unrestricted free agent and with that, the opportunity to sign where he chooses. With dismal offensive numbers over the past three seasons, it's unlikely he will be able to truly cash in as many players try to do when they first hit the open market. That's not to say that Kulemin won't learn from his previous mistakes however. By allowing himself to be put in a position to score more, he would greatly increase his value on the open market on a future contract. As we all know, the players who get paid the big bucks are the players who put up points. There are examples of defensive oriented players getting overpaid but the majority still lies with perceived offensive value. See David Clarkson.
Speaking of David Clarkson, Kulemin is an interesting comparable and a good example of a player getting far more than what he's really worth. Both players have had a single 30 goal season to their name, while playing with far more talented players and followed it up with rather pedestrian numbers the rest of their career. Both Kulemin and Clarkson have scored 15+ goals two other times. Kulemin has averaged 0.21 and Clarkson has averaged 0.22 goals per game while Kulemin has scored 0.48 points per game and Clarkson has averaged 0.39 points per game. Offensively speaking, the numbers are very similar. Defensively, it's fairly evident that Kulemin is the superior player in defensive situations while the coveted intangibles would go to Clarkson for being the hometown Toronto boy, willing to drop the gloves with a burning desire to be like Wendel. In terms of salary however, it's fairly clear that the Leafs overpaid to get Clarkson because they desperately wanted that type of player. Regardless of what the management group or the media says, Clarkson has the price tag of a player who scores goals, hits and fights. All this is to say that in the right UFA situation, a player can and most likely will get more than he's actually worth and the same could be said for Kulemin.
How does this boil down for Kulemin when it's time to sign on the dotted line? Well, with the Leafs, the odds are that he is perceived as a defensive role player under Randy Carlyle and with defensive responsibilities come poor offensive numbers. With poor offensive numbers, come poor pay cheques. This leaves Kulemin with the option of taking roughly what he is making now, somewhere in the 2.8 to 3.5 range (or less) or it could force Kulemin into taking that same type of money to play for a team that would greatly increase his offensive production and thus, increase his future value on the open market. The top destination would be the Pittsburgh Penguins. With a connection to Evgeni Malkin from their playing days in Magnitogorsk, Kulemin knows how his offensive game would explode by playing with Malkin. With approximately 16 million dollars in cap space, the Penguins could attempt to sign Kulemin, to replace a departing Jussi Jokinen, in the 3 million dollar range and performs much like Dupuis and Kunitz have, essentially third line players who are the benefactors of playing with supremely talented players like Crosby and Malkin.
As always, this is merely speculation but there seems to be reason to these rumors and as the saying goes, where there's smoke, there's fire. If the Leafs were inclined to keep Kulemin but their offer was in the same range as the Penguins or any other team on the open market, Kulemin could opt to sign somewhere else with the opportunity to increase his value on his next contract. If that holds true, that would require the Leafs to up the offer and give Kulemin a higher paying contract or a longer term contract to remain in contention for his services. A conservative estimate would be in the 16-18 million dollar range over 4 or 5 years. That type of money and term would clearly outbid other teams and keep Kulemin in blue and white.
If you don't believe Kulemin would hold the same value at that type of price tag, then comes the option of trading him which leads to another question; What would he be worth on the trade market? History has shown that defensive players tend to rise in value around the trade deadline because contending teams believe they must strengthen their defensive game. This brings us back to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Clearly a Cup contender this season, the Penguins are always looking to bolster their team on trade deadline day and this year should be no different especially when you consider how poor their defensive game has been in the playoffs the past couple of years and the injury of Pascal Dupuis. If losing Kulemin is an inevitability, then sending him to Pittsburgh seems like a logical solution.
Would the Penguins part with a 1st round pick for Kulemin? Perhaps if he was still scoring 20-30 goals however we have seen players like Paul Gaustad (during a 7 goal, 17 point season) fetch a 1st round pick so it's not entirely out of the question either. If not a 1st round pick, perhaps a younger player, preferably a defensive defender which the Leafs seem to really need. An absolute steal for the Leafs would be Olli Maatta however most would agree that would be a fairly dreamy scenario. The names of Bortuzzo and Despres have popped up but would most likely require at least a 2nd round pick to go along with them. It would however become a poetic opportunity given that it would allow the Leafs to go back to the draft table and begin their search for the next Kulemin exactly where it all began.