We’ve seen the last of Nikolay Kulemin in an Islanders uniform. He’s going home to Russia to play in the KHL and there’s not a damn thing you or I can do about that. Not a damn thing, I say. We all need to accept that and deal with it in our own way.
I’m going to deal with it by looking back at a couple of memorable plays from Kulemin’s brief Islanders tenure.
On July 2, 2014, the Islanders signed Kulemin and his good friend Mikhail Grabovski to similar four-year contracts in free agency ($16.75 million for Kulemin; $20 million for Grabovski). The two former Leafs teammates were looking to sign with a team as a package deal and the Islanders decided to be that team.
I think it’s reasonable to say Garth Snow knowingly over-paid Kulemin in order to bring the more skilled, offensively-capable center Grabovski in tow. Regardless, both signings helped solidify the depth of the team’s forward unit during that resurgent final season at Nassau Coliseum.
I. First Impression: Two-Way Forward Has Two-Way Shift
Though Kulemin had a 30-goal season with the Leafs on his resume (during which he played on a line with Grabovski), he was known more so as a defensively responsible, two-way forward capable of contributing occasional offense.
It didn’t take long for him to show us why.
Watch no. 86 go to work in this late second-period shift from the Islanders’ 2014-15 home opener, a 5-4 win over Carolina. He starts off playing relentless defense against Canes defenseman Andrej Sekera, who was trying desperately to elude him. Kulemin stays on him like a hound for nearly 20 seconds and allows no separation. After the puck eventually leaves the defensive zone, Kulie picks it up near center ice and notches a secondary assist on Josh Bailey’s goal with three seconds left in the period.
I’m told Sekera was so distraught, he changed the pronunciation of his last name at least three times following this incident.
One subtle thing I really like about this occurs at the 0:34 mark, when Kulemin almost pokes the puck loose for a breakaway up the middle of the ice, but Sekera makes a great play to just barely hold it in and move it along to a teammate.
Even though Kulie comes awfully close to pushing the puck ahead for a breakaway, he does not cheat on the play by flying the zone prematurely. He sticks with it and exits the zone only when the puck does later in the shift. It’s a microcosm of the type of player Kulemin was - no shortcuts, no easy way out, no assumptions, no taking things for granted.
He might not be a star player, but Kulie was undoubtedly missed last season. Even apart from the team’s poor defensive zone coverage, this kind of thorough and relentless defensive zone effort sorely lacking elsewhere on the roster.
Kulemin was missed on the PK last season, too, He’d been one of the highest-volume penalty-killing forwards in the league since joining the Isles and had been very effective at helping to limit shot attempts while shorthanded.
The Islanders went from having the NHL’s 4th-best PK% to 11th-best to dead-last this past season. In fact, their 73.2% kill rate in 2017-18 was the league’s worst PK% in the last 30 (thirty!) years. It’s probably not a coincidence that the PK unit plummeted in the same season Kulemin suffered a season-ending injury in game no. 15.
(Of course I know the eventual loss of Calvin de Haan played a role in that as well (though he’d been struggling on the PK). As did the Islanders’ extremely passive penalty kill. But Kulie’s absence this past season was significant, that’s all I’m saying.)
II. Kulie Closes the Coli: Game-Winning Goal in Game 6 vs. Capitals
This was the biggest goal Kulemin scored in his NHL career. It was the game-winning goal halfway through the third period of Game 6 vs. the Capitals in their 2015 first-round playoff series. It was the final game played at Nassau Coliseum...at the time, at least. They'll be playing twelve games there next season. Here is that goal:
By this point in the series, the Islanders were missing three of their top six defensemen, thanks to some shockingly dirty play by the Caps. Combined with coach Jack Capuano’s inexplicable decision to play fourth liner Colin McDonald over the team’s second-leading goal scorer, Anders Lee, the Isles were severely depleted and practically running on fumes by the time this game rolled around.
Being in the Coliseum for Game 6, I personally believe the crowd practically willed the Islanders to victory that afternoon. Even more so when considering the team’s historically pathetic performance in Game 7 in Washington, in which they put up the fewest shots on goal in a Game 7 in NHL history. That was just a brutal effort. And to think the Isles finished just one, single point away from having home-ice advantage in this series, too. Brutal.
Ovechkin’s hit on Tavares
Was that a dirty hit by Ovechkin on Tavares?
Yes, it was. Not a hit-from-behind (since Ovie does make contact with JT’s shoulder), but it was definitely Boarding. Ovechkin checks “a defenseless opponent in such a manner that causes the opponent to hit or impact the boards violently or dangerously” and as Rule 41.1 states, the “onus is on the player applying the check to ensure his opponent is not in a defenseless position.”
Tavares was certainly in a defenseless position here and he did not make any sudden or unexpected movements to make himself vulnerable. Ovie can clearly see JT’s no. 91 from right after he whips a nice one-handed slash to his shins inside the blue line, up until the moment he takes himself way, way out of position to deliver this dangerous, dirty hit.
Of course it wouldn’t have mattered anyway; Kulemin’s goal would’ve wiped out any penalty on this play had one been called.
So there you have it, folks.
Nikolay Kulemin’s tenure with the Islanders was brief, but I appreciate that he always played the game the right way.
Not only did he leave us with one fantastic playoff memory, but he also combined with Grabovski to give us a couple of great video segments: when they ate Russian food with Shannon Hogan in Brighton Beach and learned how to live like hipsters.
So Dosvedanya, Kolya. Thanks for your contributions and good luck in the motherland.
Here’s my farewell video tribute to no. 86 (which contains some bonus footage after the Game 6 goal, set to some melodic Russian music).