With Willie Mitchell’s help, Dmitry Kulikov bouncing back into form for Panthers
Things haven’t always been easy for Dmitry Kulikov.
A relic of a tumultuous time in South Florida before the arrival of general manager Dale Tallon, the 24-year-old defenseman is surprisingly the longest tenured player on the Florida Panthers roster.
In the six seasons since the Panthers selected him with the 14th overall pick in the 2009 draft, the Lipetsk, Russia, native has played under four different head coaches and survived several roster overhauls.
Over time, Kulikov admits that this atmosphere took its toll on his mindset.
Once on the fast track to stardom after piecing together back-to-back seasons of 25 points or more from 2010 to 2012, the 6-foot-1, 204-pound blue-liner stalled in his progression last season, finishing last on the team with a minus-26 rating and 47 giveaways in 81 games.
"I think most of the problems come from a mental part, not playing the game," Kulikov said before embarking on the team’s current six-game road trip. "I know how to play the game. It’s just when something gets in my head, sometimes it’s tough to get it out. I haven’t had it this year, and hopefully I’ll continue that way."
Of late, Kulikov has been looking like his old self, playing with a clear head and often found grinning from ear to ear while sitting in his stall in the far corner of the Panthers dressing room.
Sharing the blue line with captain Willie Mitchell as the team’s most defensive-minded pairing, Kulikov has seen his on-ice save percentage rise from a career-low .891 last season to .929 this season.
"I’m enjoying playing with Mitchell," said Kulikov, who has one goal and 11 points in 33 games this season. "I think we have a good team this year, and guys are enjoying being in the locker room and having fun as a group.
"We’ve had a couple of bad games, a couple of bad periods, but for the most part, we’ve been good. We need to be better for our team. We need to clean up some of the mistakes we’ve been making and be more consistent game in and game out."
Like Kulikov, Mitchell agrees that though there is always room for improvement, the duo has done a fine job in shutting down opposing team’s top offensive players on a nightly basis.
The Panthers, who are 17-11-9, have said their identity this season will continue to be their defense and, along with goaltender Roberto Luongo, the tandem of Mitchell and Kulikov has been the driving force behind that sentiment.
"Both of us can play a little bit better, and we demand that of each other," said Mitchell, who signed a two-year deal with Florida last summer. "I think our first 15, 20 games there at times it felt like, as a group, we could take over a game. And by that I mean playing against top lines and shutting them down.
"We did that quite, quite well and we’ve kind of got off that a little bit, both of us. Sometimes there’s ebbs and flows in a season. I feel like that the last little while we’ve been better. We’ve had a couple hiccups, but we’re going to continue to get better, and I think we need that. If we want to get to the postseason, we’ve got to two guys that are counted on a lot to play against great players."
Still, as much as Mitchell’s tutelage has helped Kulikov on the ice, his relationship with the young defenseman off of it has been nearly as important in fueling Kulikov’s bounce-back season.
After a bad game, the 37-year-old Mitchell can always be counted on to impart a few encouraging words of wisdom upon Kulikov to help him move on and keep any seeds of doubt at bay.
In fact, as Kulikov painstakingly awaited his first goal of the season, Mitchell affectingly bestowed the nickname "Igor Nogoalov" upon him to defuse the tension around the situation with a few good-natured laughs. On Dec. 28 against Toronto, Kulikov netted goal No. 1 and happily shook the nickname.
For as captain, Mitchell recognizes that it’s not only his job to come down hard on players when they aren’t performing, but also lighten the mood they get too hard on themselves.
"He’s a different Russian, so to speak; he’s really North Americanized," Mitchell said. "He kind of gets our humor and stuff like that. Where some guys might take offense, he knows we’re just messing with him and he knows how good we think he is as a player. I think sometimes if you think about it too much you chase it too much, and if you chase the game it’s not a good spot."
As it stands, Kulikov has been able to succeed this season while playing outside of his head. Thanks in large part to the support of Mitchell and his teammates, his confidence has returned and the missteps of last season feel like a distant memory.
"It doesn’t matter if it’s Wayne Gretzky, Willie Mitchell or Dmitry Kulikov, when you’re playing with confidence and have some things go your way it’s a lot easier to play the game," Mitchell said.