As the hockey season draws near, there are many questions that will face the 2017-18 version of the New York Islanders. After missing the playoffs for the first time since the 2013-14 campaign, the expectations are still high for the Isles. With an entirely new coaching staff and new blood ready to make an impact, this season could be something special, or the final chapter before major changes is made. Over the next 30 days, our Rob Taub will give his thoughts on what to look for from the blue and orange this season.
Since arriving on Long Island in the 2014 off-season, Nikolay Kulemin has been a solid asset for a New York Islanders club that has been able to put together three winning campaigns and two playoff appearances in three seasons. He’s never been that 30-goal man –in the past– that Isles fans thought they were getting when he signed here, but the 31-year old has found other ways to show how valuable he is. Kulemin’s role on the Islanders third and fourth lines the last three seasons have provided the Isles with depth and good two-way play, and a reliable player that the coaching staff can trust in an assortment of on-ice situations.
The question now is with younger players such as Mathew Barzal and Anthony Beauvillier looking to become regulars, and Stephen Gionta and Alan Quine still good depth pieces, how much does the coaching staff and management still value Nikolay Kulemin?
As I mentioned earlier, Kulemin’s going into the last season of his four-year, $16.75 million contract, but he’s also coming off arguably his best campaign as an Islander last season. 23 points in 72 games might not say good season, but the yeoman’s work he did on the penalty kill, giving the fourth line a boost after Matt Martin left, and being defensively responsible in his own zone all contributed to how underrated Kulemin’s play really was. He did all the things head coach Doug Weight wants out of his players and gave him the option to throw him anywhere in the lineup because he knew he could trust him.
It will be interesting to see how Kulemin follows up his best season last year in 2017-18.
With a completely new coaching staff aside from Doug Weight, Kulemin might see some new opportunities or see some of his ice time cut to see which of the younger players can take his role, but that will only be determined by number 86 himself. Most of Nikolay Kulemin’s value still lies on the job he does on the fourth line. The chemistry he has with Cal Clutterbuck and Casey Cizikas makes that line very effective and gives opposing coaches a difficult decision with how to match up against the three-man unit.
It’s on the penalty kill that Kulemin where Kulemin’s role is still vital. The Islanders penalty kill has been one of the better units in the NHL the last two seasons, mostly in part to how defensively responsible Kulemin is and his ability to make quick decisions.
Another quality that could make Kulemin even more reliable for the upcoming campaign, is that he can be inserted anywhere in the lineup and thrive. It happened multiple times last season, even him getting cozy beside John Tavares for a short stint that led to success and was a welcomed change. His movement on the forward lines could also be pertinent if the younger players begin to struggle or show signs of fatigue.
So with all the good Kulemin does, the situation he’s going in to this year is tricky. The Islanders as a team are transitioning to a younger nucleus. And that includes on the offense with Josh Ho-Sang most likely going to be a regular, and Anthony Beauvillier and Mathew Barzal looking to become full-time regulars in the lineup. Both Ho-Sang and Beauvillier showed they can handle minutes on the penalty kill late last year, so Kulemin could see that role diminish, but not fully gone.
Something to also take into consideration, the Isles offense was top-ten in goals per game last season, but want to take the step to be top-five or even top-three attack. The team has more offensively skilled players that can make that a reality, which means a player of Kulemin’s stature might have a hard time fitting in to what the team wants to accomplish.
Overall, Nikolay Kulemin still has a place on this team, and the part he plays still reaps benefits. But Kulemin is in new territory with how the Isles are changing, so he’ll face some challenges he hasn’t faced in the past, hopefully ones he will be able to overcome. Time will tell the value number 86 still brings to the blue and orange.