Jets spend big to land Kulikov, and deal has serious boom-or-bust potential

Dmitry Kulikov struggled this past season, but that didn’t stop him from cashing in as a free agent. The 26-year-old inked a three-year, $12.99-million deal with the Jets, and it’s a contract that has boom-or-bust potential.

Already with Dustin Byfuglien, Tyler Myers, Jacob Trouba, Josh Morrissey and Toby Enstrom on the back end, the Winnipeg Jets have thrown nearly $13 million at Dmitry Kulikov to bring yet another rearguard into the fold. 

Kulikov reportedly had more than a few suitors heading into free agency, but it was the Jets who scooped up the 26-year-old on a three-year deal that carries a $4.33-million cap hit, which is a significant amount of money to spend on a defender who, by all accounts, underperformed as he was set to become a free agent.

During the past season, Kulikov had what was undoubtedly the worst campaign of his eight-year NHL career, putting up just two goals and five points in 47 games with the Buffalo Sabres while averaging nearly 22 minutes per night. That can be partially blamed on injury, as he missed time with back and upper-body ailments, but there should still be concern. Primarily, that concern should come from the fact that Kulikov was absolutely caved in when it comes to the possession game. Despite splitting his zone starts rather evenly and taking minutes against one of the weaker levels of competition, Kulikov had the second-worst possession rate — 44.7 percent — and his relative Corsi For percentage was minus-3.2 percent. Only Rasmus Ristolainen, who was consistently up against the toughest competition and took a heavy slant of defensive-zone starts, fared worse.

But Kulikov is going to be in a much different situation than he is used to in Winnipeg. Even if he is about to be paid like a top-four guy, the Jets’ top four is likely to consist of some combination of Byfuglien, Myers, Trouba and Enstrom, and Morrissey showed the potential to take top-four minutes this past season, as well. That could mean Kulikov is looking at potential to slide all the way down the lineup into the third pairing, taking some of the pressure off of the rest of the D corps to play massive minutes. Not only that, but a decreased role could come with a lesser level of competition for Kulikov. Facing weaker opponents, Kulikov has a chance to rediscover his form.

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What would that look like for Kulikov? Ideally, he would manage some of the offensive totals he has in the past, and a season that mirrors his 2014-15 campaign would be ideal. Then with the Panthers, Kulikov put up three goals and 22 points in 73 games. Six of those points came on the power play, and chances are Kulikov will get the chance to work with the extra man in Winnipeg, as well.

That said, this contract may have more boom or bust potential than any other signed on July 1. If Kulikov hits, he has a chance to be a steady puck-mover who contributes on the power play. If he doesn’t, though, Kulikov’s salary will make him incredibly difficult to move in the future, and no matter how many teams may have been interested in him, it could be a deal that clogs the Jets’ cap situation for the next three years.