This offseason could possibly be the most important one in the history of the Panthers, as they have a wealth of developing talent that looks to finally be ready to push the team to make the jump from underachieving to legitimate cup contender. One key development to the offseason, then, will be signing free agents, both unrestricted free agents that can fill holes in the depth chart, and restricted free agents, the Panthers very own drafted talent that will hopefully make up the core of the lineup as they push for playoff contention. With that in mind, we'll take a look at all of the restricted free agents the Panthers have this year, and whether or not their play has earned a contract renewal, and if so, how lucrative of a contract they should receive.
The second RFA we take a look at in this series is Russian enigma, Dmitry Kulikov. Long considered part of the future, Kulikov is now 23-years-old and starting to creep closer and closer to the season where he will essentially make or break his career. The basic solution to solve the dilemma that re-signing him presents, then, would be to offer him a mid-level paying contract that locks him up until the key development period is over. This way, if he ends up a bust, the Panthers don't have to worry about his contract, and if he pans out as he should, the option to sign him to another contract is there. Now, if management believes he's going to be a bust, they may look to trade him (which rumors speculate they have) or sign him to a short-term deal that gives the organization the ability to cut ties earlier. On the flip side, if they believe the defender is going pan out, they may be able to sign him to a long-term deal for less of a yearly cap hit than if they went with the shorter, more cautious option.
What does Kulikov look to be, then? Boom or bust?... To answer that question, we look at what both the scouting report and the statistics say about him, and what it means for the future.
Kulikov is considered more of an offensive-minded defenseman, and as such, would be expected to put up better numbers than he did this season. While failing to help the team score earlier in the campaign, he also went through a bit of a defensive slump and his lapses led to too many goals against. As such, he was called out for his efforts and scratched for a game early in the season (Dec. 3rd to be exact). Kulikov rebounded, however, and had a strong end to the season, especially in the last couple of games, where coach Peter Horachek seemed more comfortable with depending on him more and more. The young blueliner also faced adversity in the way that he had to deal with trade rumors multiple times, as well as rumors that he was going to return to the KHL this offseason. Overall, his play seemed to get better (and more consistent) in the second half of the season, though his performance on the power play, his overall offensive production, and the amount of turnovers he makes appear to be definite causes for concern. Being an offensive-defenseman, turnovers are expected, but given his low plus/minus totals this season, too many pucks ended up in the back of the Panthers net due to said turnovers. Also, Kulikov is expected to contribute offensively to the team, and he didn't really seem to do that to the degree expected of him this past season. If anything, he seemed to take a step forward in his defensive development, but regressed in terms of his offensive production.
Analysis - Re-signing Kulikov could quite possibly be a risk. Holding on to him if he only ends up being a solid defenseman may not be what the Panthers are looking for at this point, as it is his offensive abilities that the team needs him to utilize more often.
As we've noted before, statistics can help us notice quirks and inconsistencies in the conventional way of looking at hockey and the development of prospects. In the case of Kulikov, this is especially true.
Dmitry averaged 21:42 TOI on the season, around what you would expect a top-4 defenseman to average. He did step up to fill the hole left by the injury to Tom Gilbert during the last ten games of the season. Over this period, he averaged 24:54 TOI, and even played 28 minutes in the season finale against Columbus. Unfortunately, the ice time didn't seem to be consistent with his production. Kulikov only had 8 goals and 11 assists for a total of 19 points, 9 lower than his career-high set back in 2011-2012, and lower than what his adjusted totals would have been last year (10 points in 34 games, adjusted, equals 24 in 82) and his plus/minus was an extremely dismal -26, which is scary as the Panthers were only -37 at even-strength this season (again, (+/-) doesn't factor PP or shorthanded points). With his TOI, Kulikov should have had a (+/-) of -13; his total on the year was DOUBLE that. Looks like the stats and conventional wisdom say that he isn't as talented offensively as he needs to be, and he's a major liability on the defensive end, right?
How so? Keeping in mind that the second assist shows little relation to player skill, we take another look at Kulikov's point totals. This time, however, we look at P1 (Goals + Primary assists) to see where he stands compared to previous years. In an adjusted 2011-2012 (he only played 58 games that season), it was 24, in 2012-2013 adjusted,14.5, and in 2013-2014, it was 13. His point production still went down then, but only in terms of assists. Each year, he has scored more goals than the previous season (6 in adjusted 11-12, 7 in adjusted 12-13, and 8 in 13-14.). It's his primary assist totals that went down, then, from 18 in adjusted 11-12, to 7 in adjusted 12-13, to 5 in 13-14. This would seem to indicate that Kulikov has become a much more selfish player, and has become something of a puck hog, leading to a drop in assist production, until we remember that the 2011-2012 Panther team won the Southeast Division and made it to the playoffs for the first time in over a decade.
Let's take a look at his teammates shooting percentage while he's on the ice. During that playoff campaign of 2011-12, it was 8.9% . This season, that number was a dismal 4.2%, far below the league average of about 9%. The real issue here seems to be with the lack of teammates with the ability to convert on the chances he creates. In terms of Quality of Competiton, in 2011-2012, he played the majority of the time with Kris Versteeg, Tomas Fleischmann, and Stephen Weiss (29.5%, 28.8%, 27.3% shared ice time, respectively) who combined for 172 points. In 2013 - 2014, he played mainly with Brad Boyes, Nick Bjugstad and Fleischmann (29.1%, 26.8%, 26.3% shared ice time, respectively). That trio only combined for 102 points. That gap is enough to show part of why his assist totals have dropped. His offensive production also dropped because he saw difference in his zone starts, with more of them becoming defensively inclined (53% offensive/defensive ratio in 11-12 to 49% in 13-14). Kulikov also received less power play time and more shorthanded time (PP down from 48.0% of the team's time in 11-12 to 40.5% of the team's time in 13-14, SH up to 35.5% of the teams time in 13-14 from 21.4% of the teams time in 11-12). This was a huge factor, as his PP point production (looking at P1) dropped to 4 points in 13-14, after being at 8 points for 11-12.
All the number crunching points to one conclusion, in terms of Kulikov's offensive production; much ado has been made over nothing, as he, if anything, has gotten better at creating chances for the Cats, even though the team itself has gotten worse at finishing, and he has seen his production drop because of this. Though the eye test and conventional wisdom may say that his offense has gone down, the stats, after in-depth analysis, state otherwise. Given a decent team around him to produce with, he could become one of the higher-end offensive-defenseman in the league.
In terms of defense, Kulikov, at first glance, looks pitiful. Again, he finished -26 on the season, which, when compared to how his ice time should relate to the team's total goal differential, is twice as bad as it should be. Initially, it looks like he does nothing but hurt the team when he's out on the ice. Looking deeper into his possession stats, however, tells a different story.
Recalling that even though his usage has become slightly more balanced, he still is favored more on the power play over the penalty kill (40.5% to 35.5% of the team's time), and we therefore note that his possession stats would be skewed slightly positive if we looked at all situations. Therefore, we look at 5 on 5 close (close meaning the score within one to eliminate confounding variables, such as teams not pressing the attack late in games).
Kulikov's Fenwick for percentage is 48.7%, and his relative Fenwick for is -1.4%. His Corsi for is 48.9%, and the relative Corsi for is again -1.4%. When Kulikov is on the ice, the Panthers tend to be slightly out-possessed, and the team usually is better without him on the ice (again, only very slightly.) Compared to previous years, his numbers have gone down, but again, only slightly. (50.4% FF, and 49.4% CF in 11-12). The big drop off for him is his goals for percentage. This year, in 5 on 5 close, his GF% was an absurdly low 23.0%, with a RGF% (relative goals for percentage) of -21.2%. The Panthers got scored on a ridiculously disproportionate amount of times when he was on the ice. Possible answers for this? Kulikov is absolutely horrible, a turnover machine, who coughs the puck up constantly, giving the opposition prime scoring chance after prime scoring chance. This would be supported by his giveaway totals (47), if giveaways weren't a useless indicator of puck possession (Erik Karlsson led the league in giveaways this year; the more often you have the puck, the more you turn it over). The second idea, and the one backed by stats, is that he suffered from a combination of very poor goaltending and bad luck. When looking at PDO, the most indicative stat of puck luck, we see something that perfectly explains the poor GF%; Kulikov had a league worst 92.0 PDO in 5 on 5 close. As mentioned before, his teammates shooting percentage was absurdly low, and when combined with his own shooting percentage, became an on ice shooting percentage of 3.8%. The SV% of the Panthers goaltenders with Kulikov on the ice was an abysmal 88.2%. Sure, the Panthers had the league's lowest PDO total, with the team ranking last with a 95.9 PDO during 5 on 5 close play. But to have a PDO of 92.0 is unheard of for someone with the skill level of Kulikov. Sean Bergenheim was another player on the Panthers with a pathetic PDO; his 93.8 was third-worst in the league. The reason his plus/minus and GF% isn't as bad as Kulikov's? He played much less TOI at 5 on 5 close, and thus had less shots directed at his net. If Bergenheim had played as much as Kulikov, his plus/minus would be just as bad, and we would be criticizing his defensive play. PDO is essentially luck; as Eric T. explains for us, shot quality doesn't factor into it. Kulikov was extremely unlucky this season. That trend won't continue into the next season, his PDO should start to progress back towards the mean of 100. With that, his solid possession numbers will pan out, and his plus/minus will more accurately reflect this.
Analysis - The stats do not match the scouting report as fully as they did with Gudbranson. Numbers never lie; it's always best to stick with them over the much more subjective eye test. Kulikov has had trouble with teammates helping him out and been a victim of bad luck. His possession numbers are there, and he's shown what he can do with solid teammates in front of him. There should be no concern moving forward with the re-signing of Dmitry Kulikov.
Sign Kulikov, and feel good about doing it. Case closed.