Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Burden of Expectations

leafs nikolai kulemin trade
Nikolai Kulemin's name has popped up in trade rumours this year, with most of the rumour mongers citing his drop in production as the primary reason. He's now become a "change of scenery" candidate and one the Leafs should allegedly be happy to trade.

After scoring 30 goals in 2010-11, Kulemin has scored 11 goals over his next 102 games. That's not even 9 over 82 games. When a player drops that far, it's hard not to wonder what's gone wrong. How can a player go from a career high to a career low so quickly?

Well, Kulemin's 30-goal year was the outlier, one likely to never be repeated. When you combine his career-high 30-goal season and his career-low 7-goal season that followed, it averages out to 18, right in line with 15-16 goals Kulemin scored his first two seasons. He wasn't as good as he was in 2010-11 and he wasn't as bad as he was in 2011-12.

But Kulemin only has four goals this season, which would total 10 over a full 82-game season. So compared to his early career, not even his outlier season, he has been conspicuously missing from the score sheet.

But Kulemin's lack of output is primarily a perceptual issue. Relative to his role, Kulemin is actually producing at a high level.

Although the Leafs have used the Grabovski-Kulemin duo as the matchup line in the past, Randy Carlyle has taken it to the extreme this year. The pair are starting less than 40% of their shifts in the offensive zone, and face the opposition's best players on a nightly basis. They don't get a reprieve either, because Carlyle is a slave to the matchup game, although he doesn't have another option as long as Colton Orr and/or Frazer McClaren play on the fourth line.

Among forwards who have played in at least 10 games, Kulemin has faced the fourth toughest competition. In terms of scoring, Kulemin has the 12th most points among the 30 forwards facing the toughest competition (many, like Pavel Datsyuk and Zach Parise, who play big minutes on the power play), even though only Max Talbot has started a lower percentage of shifts in the offensive zone.

Moreover, Kulemin's power play time has effectively disappeared. During his 30-goal campaign he saw 2:39 minutes a night with the man advantage, and is now barely cracking 30 seconds a night. In part this is because Kulemin was doing nothing with his power play time last year and lost it early, but also because the Leafs now have better offensive options on the wing (e.g., Joffrey Lupul, James van Riemsdyk).

But despite being used in a tremendously difficult defensive role and getting practically zero offensive opportunities, Kulemin is producing like a good second-line player. Kulemin is scoring at a rate that would net him 41 points over an 82-game season, which would be the second highest total of his career (next to his outlier 57-point season). His 12 even-strength assists are second on the team only to Nazem Kadri, and although he has only scored 4 goals, he has combined with Grabovski to score 12 even-strength goals, the same total as Phil Kessel and Tyler Bozak combined.

On a fairly poor defensive team, Kulemin is one of the Leafs that Dave Nonis absolutely shouldn't trade, especially if the perception of his value has diminished.

Kulemin is strong defensively and is a big body who doesn't intimidate when the games turn physical, as they will if the Leafs can manage to hold onto a playoff spot. And while he doesn't use his body for the punishing sort of checks that make Rock 'em Sock 'em, he does play a defensively physical game (e.g., using his body to shield the puck, separate the opposition from the puck).

Kulemin is under contract for one more season at a reasonable $2.8 million before becoming an unrestricted free agent. With his newfound defensive role and his drop in goals, he shouldn't be an overly expensive player to retain either. Players get paid for scoring and if Kulemin's value going forward is primarily derived from his defense, he hopefully won't price himself out of Toronto.

But don't expect the trade rumours to end anytime soon.

The Kulemin trade rumours are a product of the burden of expectations. Once you reach a new career high, such as scoring 30 goals, people assume that is your true, repeatable talent level. That expectation ignores all extraneous factors, such as a player's role or power play time, and even luck (Kulemin's shooting percentage spiked considerably during his 30-goal season) that contributed to the career year.

Kulemin isn't going to score 30 goals this year, and in all likelihood he never will again. But that doesn't mean he needs to be traded. Fans just need to trade in their expectations.


Bo Dangles said...

Another thing that played a role in his 30 goal season was MacArthur and Grabo, as all 3 had huge years. MacArthur especially was key, as he was the true playmaker on that line. I like Grabo as a player, but he's a shoot-first centre. When you have Komarov on the other wing (great checker but holy hell does he have hands of stone) its asking a lot for Kulemin, and Grabo for that matter, to score.

He's great on the PK, ranks highest out of the forwards for blocked shots and only has 9 giveaways (sidenote - some gross giveaway #s for the team on 2nd highest on the team in takeaways too.

I think he's a fantastic 3rd line player. Hopefully he can be resigned on a resaonable contract, especially considering his production this year.

Matt Horner said...

Good point about his linemates in that 30-goal year, Bo. That line really was a force that season.

Anonymous said...

One of the key points that never gets brought up is the fact that Kulemin is 50 pounds heavier than 3 years ago. This is not the same Kulemin .

Matt Horner said...

I'm going to call bullshit on that.

Here's an article from 2006 - before Kulemin made the NHL and a good 4 years before his 30-goal season - that lists him at just over 200 lbs. He's now listed at 225. So I'm not sure where you're getting your information, but it's clearly wrong.

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