An NHL defenceman has a lot to learn in a very short time. The pace of the game can sometimes appear faster than lightning compared to college, the AHL, or for some who are lucky enough to make the jump, juniors. Former NHL defenceman Denis Potvin claims that it’s not fair to judge a defenceman’s play until they’ve appeared in 200 NHL games. Too often a defenceman will come into the league and in his first year (or two) have a phenomenal season, then take a step back. Cases in point are Dion Phanuef and Tyler Myers. Both players had immediate success early, then regressed just as quickly. Though “Neon Dion” seems to have found his game again, Myers appears to still be searching for his.
The coaching and talent surrounding these players however is a large contributor to the success or failure they experience. Shea Weber, Ryan Suter and Drew Doughty are all examples of defensive players who have had successful beginnings to their careers, and have continued to maintain that pace. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are examples of blueliners who took a bit longer to develop, but are now one of the prominent pairs of defencemen in the league, with their names engraved on the Stanley Cup not once, but twice.
Here in Florida, there have been many defencemen that have been drafted with the expectation of big things to come. This article finds 5th year defenceman Dmitry Kulikov under the microscope as his season is becoming one of extreme disappointment, as it unravels with each shift he takes. Drafted 14th overall in 2009, Kulikov went straight from the QMJHL where he won six awards in the 2008-2009 season, including rookie of the year, and best defenceman of the year, to the NHL where he now finds himself the subject of scorn. When you read the scouting report here prior to his being drafted you have to admit, the Florida Panthers were drafting a very special player. What Florida thought they were getting was a smooth skating, slick passing, smart defenceman. After an initial two plus seasons where he showed just that, the best way to describe his recent play covering last season and this one is rather poor.
His erratic play and poor decisions have been consistently costing the Panthers odd man rushes leading to goals, and his turnovers (known as the Russian Turnover) have become a more common part of his game rather than a slick pass. Saturday night against the Pittsburgh Penguins Kulikov committed two blunders, both of which led to Pittsburgh goals. This comment to the Sun-Sentinel from head coach Peter Horachek indicates the frustration is at it’s boiling point:
When a disgusted Horachek was asked at what point will he sit Kulikov, he told the Sun Sentinel: “We’re at that point.”
At this moment in his career, Kulikov who is 23, should be progressing, not regressing. He’s in the final year of a two year contract that’s currently paying him $3 million dollars, and his play isn’t doing him any favors in an effort to land a lucrative deal this summer. Kulikov has yet to play a complete season due to injuries, missing time in his young career for knee and wrist problems. He’s also been the subject this season of trade rumors, although his value is diminishing quickly.
The troubling part of this situation is that Kulikov’s defensive partner, Mike Weaver has been playing the best hockey of his career over the past few seasons here in Sunrise, while spending a good portion of his time covering Dmitry’s mistakes. One glaring statistic for Kulikov is his penalty minutes this season which stands at 35 after 27 games. That number is a career high, and puts him on pace for 106. Almost 4 times higher than the 28 minutes he accrued in 58 games in 2011-2012. Most of Kulikov’s penalties are of the tripping and hooking variety, which tells you that he’s out of position. Those are due to mental mistakes, and not being aware of your surroundings and the opponents on the ice. Positioning as a defenceman is one of the most obvious mistakes to see, and Kulikov needs to get himself back on track in very short order. The Panthers are a team that can’t afford to be sloppy more than once or twice a game.
Kulikov is still very young and in position to have a very solid career if he can get himself out of his funk. As mentioned previously, he’s been the subject of trade rumors, and possibly a change of scenery would help. Yet the Florida Panthers would likely much rather see him work his way back to his initial form he displayed early in his career. While we may not be discussing a Norris Trophy nomination for a very long time, if ever, the talent is there. The skillset has been displayed before, yet for some reason he’s lost it to a degree.
At what point do you sit Kulikov? As Horachek said, he’s at that point, and has every right to make that decision. Maybe this could have a positive effect on his game, maybe a negative. But Kulikov is certainly not playing to his full potential- not even close. Kulikov is at his best when he’s moving the puck, joining the rush, making tape to tape passes. That’s what he’s known for and why he was drafted. He’s even been used in the shootout, which is highly uncommon for a defenceman unless you’re in the 12th round. His defensive ability wasn’t meant to be Shea Weber like, but we didn’t expect it to be similar to Branislav Mezei either. Whatever the problem may be, Kulikov needs to fix it sooner rather than later, otherwise he’ll have to find his game in one of the other 29 NHL cities.
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