The Florida Panthers’ blueline is beginning to take shape.
Having already locked up defensemen Dylan Olsen and Erik Gudbranson earlier this month, the team’s aggressive offseason continued Friday with the re-signing of 23-year-old defenseman Dmitry Kulikov to a three-year contract. The team didn’t release financial details, but TSN has reported the contract will pay $13 million over those three seasons with an annual cap hit of $4.33 million.
"He’s got so much ability," Panthers general manager Dale Tallon said of Kulikov. "It’s time for him now to make a statement and be a leader on our team. He’s got all the ability in the world. It’s now just a matter of channeling it in the right direction. We’re happy to have him in the fold. He’s a great kid. He’s still a young guy with tremendous ability. Hard to find those guys."
Competing in a career-high 81 games with the Panthers last season, Kulikov saw career bests in goals (8), hits (125) and takeaways (29) while logging the second-most minutes on the team. The 14th overall pick in the 2009 draft, Kulikov has appeared in 313 career games with the Panthers, scoring 24 goals and 75 assists.
Having recently eclipsed the 300-game plateau that Tallon has often noted as being the benchmark for the development of defensemen in the NHL, the Panthers believe that Kulikov’s best hockey is still to come.
"He’s on an upswing," Tallon said. "He’s got lots of good hockey in front of him. He fits into our plan with our young defensemen and now he’s one of those guys who can be a leader for our young guys and expect big things from him."
Benched briefly in December while in the middle of a midseason slump, Kulikov has also shown that, while brimming with talent, his defensive game is still a work in progress — leading the team with a minus-26 rating and 47 giveaways last season.
"When you’re not winning, you try things you’re not supposed to do," Tallon said.
Helping Kulikov perfect his game and kick some of these bad habits will be newly hired assistant coach Mark Morris. A former head coach of the AHL’s Manchester Monarchs, Morris is considered to be one of the driving forces behind the early development of the Los Angeles Kings’ current crop of stud defensemen, including Jake Muzzin, Slava Voynov and Alec Martinez.
"He did great with his group in L.A. and I expect him to do a great job with our young defensemen as well," Tallon said.
With Kulikov now under contract, the Panthers are close to concluding one of their most active offseasons in team history. Armed with an open wallet and a desire to turn things around quickly, Tallon’s work this summer has gone a long way in not only changing the Panthers outlook for this season, but also the future.
From a free agent spending spree on July 1 to the signing of head coach Gerard Gallant, everything seems to be going exactly according to plan.
"We like our team," Tallon said of the Panthers roster. "We like what happened July 1. We pretty much hit everything we wanted to hit on. We addressed a lot of needs, brought in a lot of character, brought in champions, brought in solid pros and players that are going to help develop and show our young guys the way. Overall it’s been a great month for us. Winning the lottery and having an excellent draft. Now we’ve got tremendous depth at all positions and our future looks very bright – so does the present."