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Panthers' defenseman Dmitry Kulikov is an improved player

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The talented young Russian has helped the Panthers win games this year, but he hasn't been getting the recognition he deserves.

Kulikov's improvement has started with his defensive play.
Kulikov's improvement has started with his defensive play.
Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

In the last game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Dmitry Kulikov picked up his first goal and tenth assist of the season, giving him a point-per-game pace of 0.38, which is a respectable total, but still below the 0.48 PPG pace he put up during his sophomore season.

The issue with Kulikov, however, has never really been his offensive production.  Rather, Kulikov has always had trouble playing defensively sound hockey. With a penchant for bad turnovers and consistent defensive miscues, the former first round draft pick had fans in South Florida doubting whether or not he would be worth the 3-year, 4.33 million AAV contract that he signed in the offseason.

With his play so far this year, he's earned every penny of that dough, and has helped the Cats possess the puck more than any other defenseman on the team. His +2.9% Relative Corsi rating leads the defenseman, and is third overall, behind only Sean Bergenheim and Aleksander Barkov.

For Kulikov, most of his improved play comes from his newly developed defensive awareness, his ability to get the puck up to his forwards quickly, and the way that he carries play while on the ice.

Improved Defensive Play

Kulikov is starting to excel at shot suppression, especially in the outer parts of the zone. As seen in his Hextally, the Florida blueliner has greatly restricted shots from the outer parts of the zone, and has kept shots away from the low slot.

On the offensive side of things, it's clear that he's been near the league average at every location in the zone, except for directly in front of the net. There, he's generating more shots than the rest of the league, and that's going to start resulting in goals for his team. Slightly above average offense, coupled with really above average defense, results in him helping the team dominate puck possession. With possession being the key to building long-term success in today's NHL, Kulikov could become one of the league's better defenseman.

(For sake of comparison, here's Kulikov's Hextally from last season:)

This season's totals certainly look better.

Pushing the puck to the forwards

Kulikov has also been excellent at passing the puck up to his forwards. While looking for passes that lead to shot attempts, I've tracked all of the Panthers game this season, and some of the numbers are below.

(SAG - Shot Attempt Generated, DZ - Pass originating from the defensive zone, NZ - Pass originating from the neutral zone, OZ - Pass originating from the offensive zone, SC - Pass leads to a shot inside of the scoring chance area in front of the net (slot and high slot), A2 - Secondary assist on a SAG (ex. Kulikov passes to Mitchell, who passes to Bergenheim, who shoots.  Mitchell gets a SAG, and Kulikov gets an A2 SAG).)

Defenseman A2 DZ/NZ SAGs DZ/NZ SAGs A2 OZ SAGs OZ SAGs SC SAGs Total A2 SAGs Total SAGs
Dylan Olsen 7 10 1 14 1 8 25
Aaron Ekblad 19 14 6 11 2 25 27

Dmitry Kulikov

`15 13 9 21 2 24 36
Willie Mitchell 17 4 4 18 4 21 26
Erik Gudbranson 8 7 1 13 4 9 24
Brian Campbell 14 21 8 40 6 22 67

Kulikov is second on the team in total SAGs and A2 SAGs, so he's definitely moving the puck up to people who are in a position to shoot. More importantly, however, are his neutral/defensive zone numbers. Kulikov is second in DZ/NZ A2 SAGs, and third in DZ/NZ SAGs. He's been pushing play forward from the back end, and is creating offense out of it. Just because it hasn't shown up in the box score doesn't mean it hasn't been happening, and if it continues, Kulikov's point totals could start to soar.

Carrying Play

Kulikov has been on the ice with Willie Mitchell more than any other teammate, and has been the better of the two by far. Using WOWY data from stats.hockeyanalysis.com, we get the following numbers:

Player CF % W Teammate CF % W/O Teammate
Kulikov 55.1% 55.9%
Mitchell 55.1% 41.6%

Kulikov is able to sustain his high level of play even without Mitchell on the ice, while Mitchell's numbers tank when he's separated from the Russian. A younger defenseman carrying his team captain speaks volumes about the high level of play coming from the younger player, and should leave the team very optimistic about his future in the NHL.

Conclusion

Dmitry Kulikov has really blossomed into a mobile, smart, and effective two-way defenseman. His defensive play, passing skills, and ability to carry play have led to his stellar possession numbers this season, and as he continues to grow, we could finally see him emerge as a star-type player on the Panthers' blue line.