The collective group of Panthers’ fans around the world let out a huge sigh of relief this morning when news broke that UFA defenseman Dmitry Kulikov had reached a deal with the team to keep him in South Florida. According to Harvey Fialkov of the Sun Sentinel, Kulikov’s contract will have him in a Panthers’ jersey for the next two seasons.
Kulikov’s return to the blue line helps address a Panthers’ defense that has been bitten by the injury bug recently. Starting defender Erik Gudbranson is currently on IR and will miss at least the team’s first three games due to a shoulder injury he suffered while wake boarding. Also, defenseman Mike Weaver is questionable for Saturday’s home opener after suffering an injury during Wednesday night’s inter-squad scrimmage.
Last season, Kulikov was possibly the Panthers’ second best offensive minded defenseman behind Brian Campbell and was able to tally 28 points (4G 24A) in 58 games before suffering a knee injury that cost him the rest of the 2011-2012 season.
During the lockout, Kulikov played for Lokomotiv Yaroslavl of the KHL. During his stint with Lokomotiv, Kulikov recorded 6 points (3G 3A) in 22 games played and was clocking just over 20 minutes of ice time a game.
Luckily for Panthers’ fans, Kulikov’s activity during the lockout should help him get back onto the ice faster with the team. Consider he missed most of training camp, I would not expect to see Kulikov lace up his skates for opening night. He will most likely join the team on their road trip to Canada, or possibly play in the team’s next home game on January 24th against the Ottawa Senators.
While the Kulikov signing was met with cheers from the Florida fan base, the team’s announcement that it had reached a 1-year deal with veteran winger Alexei Kovalev was met with a mix of both hope and skepticism.
When GM Dale Tallon originally extended an invitation to Kovalev to attend Panthers training camp, it was thought of as a move that would have little to no effect on the club. Now, only a little over a week later, Kovalev could be starting on the Panthers’ second scoring line when the puck drops on opening night in Sunrise.
According to multiple reports, the Panthers will sign Kovalev to a one year contract after an impressive training camp and a bevy of Panthers’ injuries opened up a roster spot for the former NHL star.
At 39 years old, this could very well be Kovalev’s last hurrah in the NHL and hopefully he can give whatever he may have left to the Panthers as they look to repeat as Southeast Division Champions.
Kovalev was impressing throughout the Panthers’ training camp as he played alongside two other players hoping to prove their worth this season, rookie Jonathan Huberdeau and injury prone center, Peter Mueller.
The natural scoring abilities of all three skaters were evident this week as the trio of Huberdeau, Mueller and Kovalev were all eager to make their mark in South Florida.
If his showing at camp wasn’t enough to earn a roster spot, injuries to Panther forwards Marcel Goc and Sean Bergenheim have opened up the door for Kovalev to have his shot with the club this year. Both Goc and Bergenheim will miss at least the team’s first three games this season.
Kovalev’s last good statistical season came during the 2009-2010 season while playing for the Ottawa Senators. Kovalev was able to compile 49 points (18G 39A) through 77 games played that season. While his stellar statistical days may be behind him, his creativity on shootouts as well as his veteran experience could benefit the Panthers. Potentially playing on the team’s second line and on the power play early on this season, Kovalev should have plenty of opportunities to prove to the league that he still belongs in the NHL.
After the risky signings of questionable players like Kris Versteeg and Tomas Fleischmann proved to be fruitful last season, Alexei Kovalev could end up being Dale Tallons first “GM Hat Trick” since taking over in South Florida.