The Panthers signed defenseman Dmitry Kulikov to a three-year, $13-million contract Friday, finishing one of the final pieces of team business for GM Dale Tallon this summer. (Only fellow restricted free agent Jimmy Hayes still needs a new contract.) But given the trade rumors that surrounded Kulikov and that franchise’s history of consistent and widespread roster turnover, his long-term future in Florida hardly is secure.
This isn’t a personal slight against Kulikov. As noted on THN.com a couple weeks ago, many veterans never finish the contracts they sign. Kulikov is just 23, but in his four NHL seasons with Florida there’s been an underlying sense of dissatisfaction with him. Although his possession numbers are solid and he logged the second-most time-on-ice (21:41) of any Panther last year, he hasn’t been a standout at either end of the ice in the way some people believe a first round draft pick should. And the specter of him going home to play in the Kontinental League has complicated matters, despite his consistent denials. All those factors combined to create the sense Kulikov could be an ex-Panther at any moment.
Florida’s new commitment to him allays some of those fears, but the pressure on the Panthers and their boosted payroll to make the playoffs means that few of their players – other than those Tallon has bestowed with virtually untradeable deals (hello, Willie Mitchell!) – will be safe if the team struggles.
Some may say they gave too much money to a guy who has never had more than eight goals and 28 points in a single season, but one quick glimpse of the market for defensemen (hello, Nikita Nikitin at $4.5 million a year!) tells you Tallon had to give Kulikov the going rate for a young player at his position.
With the salary cap expected to rise steadily in the coming years, Kulikov’s deal won’t be a hurdle to trading him. In fact, unless he completely falls apart, he’ll now be easier to move. And if the Panthers’ younger blueliners (Erik Gudbranson and Dylan Olsen) continue to improve, it won’t be nearly as painful to part ways with Kulikov as it might have seemed when Florida drafted him 14th overall in 2009.
Much will be expected of the Panthers and Kulikov this season. And though both the team and player felt sufficiently comfortable with one another to agree to stay together, it may not take a lot for the situation to change, and change quickly.