Monday, June 07, 2010

Leafs have contract problems of their own...

Comparatively, the contract impasse now brewing between the Maple Leafs and Nikolai Kulemin will not have the impact on the franchise that the Sens/Spezza drama will. No matter which way this thing goes.

But, for the first time since Burke took over as GM of the team there appears to be trouble between him and a player agent. Kulemin's agent's side of the story goes something like this: My player was your 1st line winger and he should be paid accordingly. Burke's argument is: He was a 1st line winger by default and lets not forget he has yet to hit 40 points in an NHL season.

Kulemin had 16 goals and 20 assists last season in 78 games.

This is a strange position to be in for a Leafs fan. Anybody who watched Nik play last year saw that this guy has all the makings of an impact player. I stop short of "star potential", because while playing on the top 1 or 2 lines on any NHL team is one hell of a feat and an exclusive club indeed, Kulemin only showed flashes of star material with a few highlight reel goals and some incredible work in his own end of the ice that may some day translate into playoff heroics if he's given the chance. But as of right now, the safe money is that he becomes a very valuable 2nd line player who could crack 25 goals if all goes exceptionally in his favour. I could see him on the 3rd line once this team is fully designed and ready to compete for a cup. You simply can't afford to overvalue this guy right now if you're Brian Burke.

I'm not sure what kind of money Kulemin and his agent are asking for. Grabovski signed a contract for $2.9M last summer and perhaps Kulemin is looking for something closer to that figure instead of the rumoured $1.8M that seems to be flying around the blogs as the figure Burke is offering. Thing is, Grabovski was injured a good part of last season and in almost 20 fewer games he scored as many points as Kulemin give or take. That's playing on the 2nd and sometimes 3rd line, it should be noted. While I think most Leaf fans would value Kulemin about the same as Grabs, statistically Grabovski has contributed more to the cause.

One could also look at Gustavsson's contract as a signpost. Sure, it's hard to compare goalies and skaters as far as compensation, but Gustavsson was for some stretches the #1 goalie on this team and while he may or may not be that #1 guy down the road, right now that is the plan for him. Yet, he signs a $1.35M/per year deal based on what he's actually accomplished.

One wonders if this thing is going to get uglier before it is resolved? Kulemin is a restricted free agent which means arbitration is an avenue he and his agent can explore but can anybody see an arbitrator rewarding 36 points with any more money than he's making right now - about $1.5M with bonuses? There is of course the KHL which is always a threat when it comes to European players and especially a Russian like Kulemin who has represented his country 5 times internationally. But how much of a threat is it, really? The allure of the KHL for NHL players is dropping faster than public opinion in Ottawa about Jason Spezza. Of course Burke could also change lanes completely and package this kid out in a trade or wait for the possibility of an offer sheet from another team.

I don't envy Burke right now. He's in a tough position and frankly he caused this mess. In his year-end media scrum he called out Kulemin as being one of the teams best and most consistent forwards and applauded his physical play and work in his own end. Yet here he is a few months later negotiating with Kulemin based not on intangibles or hard work or potential but based on his goals and assists. I'm sure Burke would like to keep a player like Kulemin around but he also has to manage his future cap spare. Every $$$ extra in cap space he can save now is going to come in handy when the Leafs need to bolster a competitive line-up with UFA's. Thing is, he needs to think about these things before he talks up a player like he did with Kulemin. It's nice to reward your hard-working players with great reviews, but be prepared for them to expect pay increases that match the praise.

Stay tuned...

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