With less than $4.9( in cap-space to spend on, between Kadri and Franson), Dave Nonis has still his work cut out for him.
By moving Nikolai Kulemin, who is scheduled to make $2.8 this season, it could give Nonis the extra breathing room needed to work with to bring both players back.
In hindsight, it appears as if Nonis is a playing a psychological 'chicken' game between Nazem Kadri and Cody Franson. Trying to determine: who will bite first. Or, if both players will play for bargains, which is highly unlikely. I'd estimate both players are probably seeking between $3.0-3.8 each.
Trying to understand Nonis's thinking, is like trying to understand the thinking of Doctor Zhivago. If the club wanted to target David Clarkson, ok, maybe reluctantly, I understand the thinking in that. But wouldn't it have made more sense to make Kadri and Franson higher priorities from the start, given their contributions last season?
The summer of 2014 further complicates the Leafs budgeting problems. Among the players slated for UFA are: Dion Phaneuf, Phil Kessel, Kulemin, Dave Bolland, Jay McClement, Paul Ranger, and Mark Fraser. RFA's include: Jake Gardiner, Joe Colborne, and James Reimer.
Kessel, the team's default franchise player is suited for a nice reward, given his offensive potency and playoff performance. Phaneuf, the team's Captain is probably also looking for foundation-laden contract. It makes sense to bring both players back, since both are critical pieces of the Leafs core, and, aren't easily replaced.
With all that considered, how do the Leafs come up with money to retain most, if not all of these players? While all these players have different or similar skill-sets, Kulemin might be the easy target to look at for a variety of reasons.
In Wilson's run-and-gun system, Kulemin was an effective offensive player. He was magnificent in his 2010-2011 season, and most Leafs fans would agree he was the best overall Leafs player that season, potting 30 goals, and being rock solid defensively.
However, since then, his production has leveled off dramatically. While he still maybe a very useful player who rarely makes on-ice mistakes, the overall Leafs depth at wing, isn't exactly short.
Something did change with Kulemin. I believe it goes back to the Tim Gleason sucker-punch surprise. He hasn't been nearly as fearless, or confident as he used to be. It's somewhat similar with what happened to Tomas Kaberle when Cam Janssen did his dirty, cheap-shot, check from behind. But one can also make a case, his ice-time and role has also changed.
There is also the: 'Russian factor' working against him. Kulemin could also simply take the Ilya Kovalchuk route, after the 2013-14 season, and go back to the KHL. Which would easily net him a much bigger boat-load than he would likely receive from with the Leafs, or for that matter any NHL team, who might acquire him.
What his overall return/value is, is still up for debate. In the past, the Pittsburgh Penguins rumor mill have made it known they were interested in acquiring Kulemin, since he's had previous chemistry with Evgeni Malkin. At 6'2, roughly 235, Kulemin is a capable power forward with a decent skillset, though, not necessarily a consistent snot-knocker. If traded however, he'd probably be a rental player. In the wrong scenery, the Russian factor may come into play strongly, thus decreasing his value.
With his status as a UFA in 2014, one can easily deduce that he'll be the target of many trade rumors throughout the season, with many teams garnering heavy interest. The Leafs will probably have to move him to keep the general core together, and with Nonis and Carlyle favoring the North American game, he could be the odd-man out.
Kulemin is a lot of things. He does a number of things on the ice very well, but doesn't really have a standout skill-set, other than his frame. He rode shotgun most of his career with the recently bought-out Mikhail Grabovski. For him, this season is going to be a dramatically different scene. Which is somewhat of a weird compliment for Kulemin. Other than Clarkson, (and maybe JVR), the Leafs don't really have a lot power-forwards, and Kulemin, prior to the Clarkson signing, was sort of their lone example of one.
To be certain, Kulemin is a decent enough and capable NHLer. Although, at this rate he's become a 'tweener 2nd-line, 3rd line guy, and the Leafs seem to have more than a few of those guys. However, Nik has also proven to be a capable 1st line guy if need-be, going back to his 09-10 season, when he was pure magic with Bozak and Kessel.
(I have often wondered while the Leafs got away from the: Bozak-Kulemin-Kessel line. Only Ron Wilson and Randy Carlyle could answer for sure, they'd probably say to increase depth, I suppose.)
If and when the Leafs do decide to trade him and for what is still unknown. Nonis could pull a rabbit out of his hat tomorrow and make a move. Honestly speaking, it doesn't make much sense to move either Kulemin, Kadri, or Franson. But, Kadri might be an up and coming star, and Franson's skill-set isn't easily replaced.
Though the Leafs are very thin at forward prospects to replace Kulemin with, they would probably swap him out for blue-chip forward prospect. Whether any team is willing enough to bite however, is an unknown. But, no matter how you look at it, Kulemin could very well be the odd-man out of this group. Unless of course, the Leafs are confident Ranger and Liles can make up for the Franson withdrawl, or forcing Morgan Rielly into the picture earlier than expected will pay-off.
If the Leafs were to deal Kulemin, they would probably give his roster-spot to Joe Colborne immediately. Or, experiment with Jerry D'Amigo, Brad Ross, Spencer Abbott or Carter Ashton. Very remote, though unlikely possibility would be giving Tyler Biggs a look as well. Though none of the above mentioned players are anything like Kulemin.