When Dave King was coaching in Magnitogorsk, Russia, two seasons ago, he had a problem.
He had this wonderful talent in Evgeni Malkin, but didn't have anybody to play with him. King wanted somebody who was defensively sound, so Malkin could weave his offensive magic.
Through trial and error and a spate of injuries, he ended up with Nikolai Kulemin, then a 19-year-old who was solid as granite, a 6-foot-1 tough guy who finished his checks.
He didn't play much and few in the organization thought Kulemin was more than a middling prospect. But King liked his defence-first attitude and since no one else had proved able to keep up with Malkin, he gave the kid a shot. Then something happened.
"All of a sudden, he shows he can make a lot of plays," King said. "The play didn't stop with him, he made the next play. Suddenly, Malkin was on a tear, the line was a real plus line and, really, the key element was Nikolai Kulemin."
Only some in the hockey world took notice of the magic in Magnitogorsk.
"Everybody would assume that Malkin made Kulemin a great player. It was a combination of both players," King said. "Malkin's a great player, but Kulemin could really play with Malkin, read off Malkin. He's just a really good, really complete player. Any NHL organization that's got this man has a good player."
The organization that drafted Kulemin in 2006 (44th overall) – and has him signed to a three-year-deal worth $4.4 million (U.S.) – is the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The future may not be as bleak as some think for this team. They should get a top 5 pick and maybe more depending on the Sundin situation, and then there is Nikolai Kulemin playing like a super star in Russia.
If properly managed this Leafs team may have a much better future then we think.