Hockey / Sports

Panthers re-sign Kulikov for $13 million over 3 years

Florida Panthers General Manager Dale Tallon always said it takes about 300 games for a defenseman to reach his potential in the NHL.

Well, Tallon must believe that enigmatic, yet skilled defenseman Dmitry Kulikov is ready to put it all together as he re-signed the Russian blueliner to a three-year extension worth $13 million or $4.33 per year, making him the second highest-paid defenseman on the team behind Brian Campbell's $7.14 million deal.

Despite being just 23 years old, Kulikov, the 14th pick of the 2009 draft, has played 313 NHL regular-season games. While he's coming off a decent offensive season with a career-high eight goals to go with 11 assists in a career-most 81 games played, he continued to make poor decisions with the puck as he notched a team-worst minus-26 ice rating.

His unforced errors led to a one-game benching by then interim head coach Peter Horachek on Dec. 3 against the Senators.

"He has so much ability and this is a fair contract; it's what being paid around the league," Tallon said. "Now it's time for him to make a statement and be a leader on our team. He's got all the ability in the world. It's a matter of channeling it in the right direction."

The last time Kulikov was a restricted free agent came during the 2012-13 lockout. He returned to Russia where he played 22 games for his hometown team of Yaroslavl Lokomotiv. Once the lockout ended on Jan. 12, Kulikov held out during an abbreviated training camp before signing a two-year deal. He sat out the season opener, citing jet lag, while then coach Kevin Dineen indicated it was more about conditioning.

Kulikov then had an injury-marred, subpar season, playing just 34 of the 48 games. Tallon believes the addition of assistant coach Mark Morris will help Kulikov cut down his mistakes.

"When you're not winning you try things you're not able to do," Tallon said. "Obviously, it all comes down to team and what kind of team you're playing with and who his partners are. We didn't have a very good year and most of our players didn't have very good years so we're going to have different coaching and we're going to focus on making him a better player and simplifying his game, making him a more consistent player."

With the recent re-signings of restricted free-agent defensemen Erik Gudbranson and Dylan Olsen, this gives the Panthers six signed defenseman on one-way deals, including Campbell, Kulikov, Colby Robak and recently acquired Willie Mitchell. The list doesn't include top draft pick Aaron Ekblad, who Tallon expects to sign before training camp.

Tallon said that Olsen, Robak, rookie Alex Petrovic and prospect Jonathan Racine will battle it out for two spots on the blue line.

PIRRI DEAL

Tallon recently tied up young forward Brandon Pirri to a two-year, one way deal worth $875,000 this season and $975,000 in 2015-16.

Because of the glut of centers on the roster, Tallon said Pirri, who scored 25 points in 49 games for Chicago and Florida, will shift to left wing.

"He'll be a versatile player," Tallon said. "He'll play all the forward positions and we'll get him on special teams, especially on the power play. He's highly skilled, got a great shot and skates very well. We'll use him a lot on offense and are hoping he gets stronger physically and better defensively as he grows." ...

Tallon said he anticipates signing restricted free-agent forward Jimmy Hayes before his salary arbitration hearing takes place next month, and that he's still working on trading some of his young defensemen for a veteran player.

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