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Florida Panthers Season in Review: Dmitry Kulikov - percentages and expectations

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Kulikov is a player who has received his fair share of criticism throughout the years for his play, but in the end, he's capable of succeeding in a top-four role, and should be a key part of the team's success in 2015-2016.

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

In lieu of our typical "Season In Review" posts, we're going to take a look at Dmitry Kulikov's 2014-2015 season in relation to expectations that have been placed on the young defenseman based on his scouting reports and early success in the league.

Kulikov is a player who I think had a wildly successful start to his career, but suffered through a patch of rough puck luck, and changed aspects of his game that have made him less effective than he could be. Breaking down his play should give us a good idea of when Kulikov plays at his best, and when the young defenseman doesn't maximize the impact he can have on the game.

(Note: I know that I've broken these "Season In Review" posts into two different sections in the past, but in order to get a full understanding of a guy like Kulikov, I'm going to be actively mixing up the statistics and the eye test. Figured I'd give everyone a heads up.)

Seasons 1-3 vs. Seasons 4-6

Just to give everyone an idea of what I'm talking about when I say that Kulikov failed to live up to expectations after his first couple of seasons in South Florida, let's breakdown his points per game and point rates from his first three seasons with the Cats, and compare them to his most recent three seasons.

Seasons PTS/G 5v5 P/60 5v5 Primary P/60 PP P/60
2009-2012 0.35 0.80 0.51 2.87
2012-2015 0.27 0.57 0.27 2.80

As we can see, from the ages of 18-21 ('09-'12), Kulikov's statistics were impressive, and led many to believe that as he entered his prime, the numbers would only grow. Instead, the Russian defenseman appears to have taken a step backwards, and his numbers from ages 22-24 ('12-'15) look mediocre. Combine the declining point totals with a .891 save percentage during the 2013-2014 season that led to a -26 rating, and it appears to the casual observer that the talented Kulikov has gone from potential star to potential bust. That type of backwards development is never encouraging, and it's resulted in Kulikov being a healthy scratch, as well as him even being included in trade rumors.

So, what went wrong?

In order to figure out why Kulikov experienced such a decline in his on ice play, we'll look at a number of factors, starting with the percentages.

We'll start with his on-ice save percentage, which generally falls between .915% and .925%; in 2013-2014 however, a crazy low .891% derailed his plus-minus and made it appear as though he was an incompetent defender. When the on-ice SV% returned to normal levels in 2014-2015, people suggested that new defensive partner Willie Mitchell had helped Kulikov fix his defensive issues; in reality, it was just percentages returning to normal.

Now that we know the terrible defensive numbers in 2013-2014 were just a fluke, we can turn our focus to the declining offensive numbers. How has Kulikov's on-ice shooting percentage looked over the years?

realistic range for the on-ice shooting percentage of most NHLers to fall over the course of a season is from 7%-10%. Given that the Panthers have been one of the worst shooting teams in the NHL over the past six seasons, we'll make a range of 7%-9% realistic for Kulikov.

As we can see, the 24-year-old doesn't have a single year over 8.5% SH%, and actually has had two seasons at or below 7%.

So, his offensive production during his first three seasons with the Panthers wasn't a result of high percentages, and his decline over the next three years wasn't necessarily a result of poor play; it was mostly the result of an insanely low on ice shooting percentage.

There is reason to believe that Kulikov's point totals were slightly inflated from 2010-2012, however. Travis Yost of TSN looked at individual point percentage (IPP) recently, and showed that it fluctuates from year to year, and can affect our perceptions of players. Some tidbits from the article:

IPP regresses substantially towards league averages. On average, forwards usually receive a point on about 68 per cent of goals scored when they are on the ice. That number sits at about 30 per cent for defencemen.

Context is key: we simply can't treat all players as equals in a hockey vacuum. Sidney Crosby(84.8 per cent) and Erik Karlsson (49.4 per cent) lead career IPP and it's not a fluke – they're constantly involved in the run of play, and as such, pick up extra points along the way.

Now, we don't have tons of reasons to suggest that Kulikov is more (or less) involved in offensive play than the average NHL defenseman, so we'll assume that his IPP at 5-on-5 should stand between 25%-35%.

In the best two seasons of his career, Kulikov's IPP stood at 43.2% and 44.4%. He was getting a high percentage of points from the goals that were scored while he was on the ice, a feat that simply wasn't sustainable.

So, coming into the 2012-2013 season, the young Russian defenseman had expectations that were unrealistically high; in 2011-2012, he managed 28 points in 58 games, and had done it with a career-high on-ice shooting percentage, and a 44.4% IPP.

The lockout-shortened season couldn't have been more of a disaster for Kulikov, who only managed 10 points in 38 games. Part of this had to do with a decline in his on-ice shooting percentage, but an even greater part had to do with his decline in IPP.

In 2012-2013, Kulikov only got credited with a point on 15.8% of the goals scored while he was on the ice, the 14th lowest total among defenseman who played 300 minutes that year. Then the next season, he had his career-low, on-ice shooting percentage, and another below average IPP (23.4%). The result is that Kulikov's numbers from 2012-2014 look as though he's taken a step back, when in reality, he's mostly just been unlucky; his underlying metrics aren't exactly changing too much.

His offensive expectations (the black line) haven't fluctuated too wildly, and his actual output (the colored bar) usually isn't too far off from the expected.

Other Factors

Though bad luck has played a large part in Kulikov's tumultuous six seasons in South Florida, there are factors that should be mentioned if this is truly to be a holistic analysis of the young defenseman.

For starters, Kulikov has played for four different head coaches in his six seasons with the Panthers: Pete DeBoer, Kevin Dineen, Peter Horacheck, and the current head coach, Gerard Gallant. Looking at the changes in order, we don't see much difference in Kulikov's numbers. DeBoer was replaced by Dineen after the 2010-2011 season, and Dineen was essentially replaced after the 2012-2013 season. Horacheck was let go at the end of the 2013-2014 campaign.

It's also interesting to note that Kulikov's first "down" year came during the lockout-shortened season, where he held out for a contract for so long that he missed training camp and the first game of the season. He also played with a minor injury at the start of the season, and then hurt his shoulder mid-season and needed surgery during the off-season.

Let's put the whole timeline together. While playing for DeBoer and Dineen, Kulikov experiences some success; sure, some of it comes as a result of luck, but he still played well. Then, a contract holdout, a couple of injuries, and poor puck luck derail his offensive production. Though we can't know for certain, we can hypothesize that Kulikov either lost some confidence in his game, or changed an aspect of it in response to his declining offensive numbers.

The next season, Kevin Dineen is replaced by Peter Horacheck, who was a disciple of Barry Trotz's strict defensive system. Kulikov doesn't fit in the system, and his already low confidence falls even lower. As a result, the young defenseman has the worst season of his career.

He does tons of work in the off-season, and comes into the 2014-2015 season with a different approach to the game, focusing more on not turning the puck over. He fits a little bit better in Gerard Gallant's system, and though he doesn't match his offensive totals, his defensive play is improved, and he looks to be living up to expectations of a first round draft pick.

Now, there are two different narratives at play here, and neither one is likely more correct than the other. It's likely that a combination of puck luck, injuries, and coaching changes all led to Kulikov's impressive first three seasons, and disappointing following three seasons.

Looking back at the 2014-2015 season

Now that we've taken a look at how Kulikov could have gone from collecting nearly half a point per game in 2011-2012 as a 21-year-old to averaging .30 points per game in 2014-2015 as a 24-year-old who is supposed to be entering his prime, we can try and come up with reasonable expectations for the 2015-2016 season.

That starts, of course, with a look at the 2014-2015 season. Though it could be considered a success when compared to the season he had in 2013-2014, I still feel as though there was tons of wasted potential on Kulikov's behalf over the course of the year.

I went back and looked at as many games from the 2011-2012 season as I could, in order to see if I could pick up on anything that was different from his play during the 2014-15 campaign.

One thing that Kulikov did several times during the team's playoff season was create neutral zone turnovers and turn them into assists.

Here we see Mike Santorelli making a nice play on the rush, after Kulikov picks off a pass and gets the play going in his offensive direction.

And here we see Kulikov plucking a pass out of the air, getting it up to the forwards, and then joining the rush late in order to bury the puck.

The numbers (kind of?) back this up, as Kulikov averaged .43 turnovers in 2011-2012, and only .23 turnovers per game in 2014-2015. The NHL is notorious for having iffy data when it comes to the "real time" statistics, so I wouldn't put too much stock in those numbers, but to see the eye test match the numbers in some form is reassuring.

That being said, there were offensive aspects that Kulikov developed into his game. Take this brilliant assist, for example.

He steals the puck from the forward, protects it along the boards, evades another forward, and then sends a beautiful stretch pass up to Nick Bjugstad, who is able to spring Jonathan Huberdeau for a scoring chance (and goal).

Given this information, the blame for the different style of play doesn't lie entirely with the player then, as Gerard Gallant had the team playing a defensive system which was noted in our "Season In Review" breakdown of his 5 on 5 system.

Kulikov also received less power play time than he had in previous seasons, and spent more time on the penalty kill.

The talent is there. Given league average shooting percentage and league average individual points percentage, the young Russian defenseman could hit 35 points next season. That puts him at close to half a point per game, which would be a huge boost of offense from the blue line.

There are a number of variables that need to come together in order for that to happen, though.

Going Forward

In 2015-2016, I want to see two things from Gerard Gallant in regards to Kulikov.

1) Increased offensive role

Dmitry Kulikov has offensive talent. Give him a greater opportunity to use it. Gallant's deployment of the defense last season was incredibly top heavy, with the Brian Campbell - Aaron Ekblad pairing getting incredibly high offensive expectations, while the rest of the pairings got mainly defensive usage.

As you can see, Ekblad and Campbell had expectations so high that they failed to meet them, while the rest of the team easily met their much lower expectations.

On defense, Campbell and Ekblad didn't have much responsibility, but still managed to excel, while the rest of the team allowed more shot attempts than would be expected based on their usage.

The solution? Balance out the usage. Not only did Kulikov exceed his defensive expectations, he also exceeded his offensive ones, and if placed with someone who can let him create offense (either on the rush, or through more turnovers in the neutral zone), he could put up decent point totals and give the team some much needed offensive help from the back end.

Kulikov also needs to be given more power play time. Given his talents, there's a spot for him somewhere, either as a quarterback, or as a left-handed one-timer. Regardless, the ability to create goals is there, and if placed with the right teammates, the Russian could impress with his production.

2) Long leash

In the assist we watched against the Dallas Stars, Kulikov dangles with the puck in his own zone in order to evade a forechecker. Most players can't get away with something like this, and as a result, coaches will often tell players to never be fancy with the puck in their own end; just make the safe play, and chip it out of the zone.

Kulikov has the skills to make plays like that, however. He needs to be given the freedom to create, and even though there will be turnovers that lead to goals, the offensive payout should outweigh the defensive lapses.

It's hard to overstate just how important this could be. If Gallant shuts Kulikov down quickly, or doesn't let him try to jump up in the play, or doesn't give words of encouragement after a turnover leads to a goal (something along the lines of "Don't worry about it, just get that goal back for us"), then an increased offensive role likely won't result in Kulikov playing up to his potential.

There are also two things I want to see from Kulikov.

1) Shoot the puck

Kulikov's declining shot rates are resulting in less deflections, rebounds, and odd bounces that could lead to goals. Even if the puck is blocked in the slot, or misses the net, there's still a chance that the goalie has been pulled out of position and a scoring chance could arise.

2) Play with confidence

This one kind of goes hand in hand with "Long leash" for Gerard Gallant, as I want to see Kulikov try and make plays happen in all three zones of the ice. There's offensive talent there, and making the safe play every time won't hurt the team, but won't exactly help, either.

Playing with confidence means not being afraid to take risks with the puck, so long as the risks are smart. Trying to go through three forecheckers on your own is never a good idea, but if you can get around the first, draw the second, and make a pass to an open teammate? Go for it.

Conclusion

There's a lot of words written above, and there are probably some of you who just skipped to this part, so I'm going to summarize the whole article for those too lazy to read.

Dmitry Kulikov is a player who experienced a bit of good puck luck in his first years as a Panther, resulting in high point totals, and high expectations. Injuries, coaches, and bad puck luck really affected his play, and though he had a bounce back season in 2014-2015, there's still tons of untapped potential that can be shown during the 2015-2016 campaign.

I really hope that we get to see some of it.

(statistics and charts taken from war-on-ice.com, puckalytics.com,  and nullhypothesishockey.com,)