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This article was published 1/9/2017 (1761 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Dmitry Kulikov has long admired the Winnipeg Jets from afar but now gets an up-close-and-personal look at the NHL club that's banking on him to be a pivotal part of their future.
The Russian-born defenceman, signed July 1 to a three-year, US$13-million contract, arrived in the city Tuesday -- several days earlier than most of his new teammates -- to get a crash course on the Manitoba capital, find a place to live and skate informally with other pros at Bell MTS Iceplex.
Kulikov, a left-shooting blue-liner, is chomping at the bit to prove a forgettable 2016-17 NHL season spent with the Buffalo Sabres that was marred by a recurring injury was just a blip in his career and that, at 26, he still has his best years ahead of him.
"Looking at the roster in the summer got me really excited about where the team is going. Obviously, there’s a lot of talent here and I’m excited to be part of this group," he said, following a Friday morning on-ice workout. "(It's a) really strong defensive group. Every guy is over 6-foot-2, a pretty heavy but mobile defensive group. I’ve always liked Winnipeg and their style of play, how they use their defencemen a lot in the offensive zone and in every situation."
The Jets hope Kulikov, 6-1, 205 pounds, a former first-round pick of the Florida Panthers, is the final piece that solidifies a defensive unit that includes right-shooters Dustin Byfuglien, Tyler Myers (who missed most of last season due to injuries and a family health issue) and Jacob Trouba, and left-shot blue-liners Josh Morrissey, Toby Enstrom and Ben Chiarot.
He's regarded as both physical and mobile, attributes he maintains were squandered in Buffalo after he suffered a freak injury during a preseason game last fall. Playing against Toronto, Kulikov was checked into an open bench door and suffered a deep back bruise that ached for much of the season, forced him out of the lineup three times and sabotaged any consistency in his game.
He dressed for just 47 games, scored only twice and added three assists last season, the eighth of his NHL career after breaking in with the Panthers as an 18 year old in 2009-10 after a brilliant junior season in Drummondville, Que., the year before.
Dealing with the pain was one thing but the mental strain of feeling like he was on the outside looking in, while worrying about his long-term health, was another matter entirely, he said.
"It just takes you out of your rhythm when you play 10 games and miss 20, play 10 and miss 20... you don’t get familiar with the system," he said. "Mentally, it’s hard because it’s always on your mind -- that injury bugging you on a daily basis. A lot of the times it was frustrating, having to go through rehab and then it happens again, going to rehab and it happens again. You just kind of couldn’t break that cycle, so that was the toughest part."
Now healed and playing in the Western Conference for the first time in his career, Kulikov is eager for a fresh start.
"I don’t want one unfortunate injury and a tough season to reflect on everything I’ve done previous to that, so I’m not worried about that. I know I’m 100 per cent now and ready to go," he said. "... Just a positive attitude coming into a new team and getting familiar with the teammates."
He already knows a few members of the team, including former Panthers teammate, left-winger Shawn Matthias, and forwards Blake Wheeler Mark Scheifele, who he's skated and trained with during past off-seasons.
"It makes it easier if you know a few players... it makes that transition easier. It felt like I knew (Blake) for a long time now. He’s a good guy and he’s saying we have a good group of guys here. It should be fun," he said.
Kulikov had a career year during the 2011-12 season (4G, 24A in 58 games) but his offensive numbers slipped in his final few years in Florida, he was a minus player for much of the time and was maligned for his defensive lapses.
He chalked that up to altering his style of play on a struggling squad.
"We didn’t have a good team with the Panthers the first few years, so I kind of had to step up defensively and worry more about my own end. So, maybe I kind of got away from my offensive end of the game, but I certainly like to carry the puck and distribute and pass the puck," he said.
Kulikov said playing physical remains a huge part of his game -- and he credits another eastern European defenceman with influencing his style of play that makes it risky for opponents to move through the neutral zone with their heads down.
"Darius Kasparaitis, when I was younger, he was one of my favourite players because of the physical element. When I was 15, 16, 17, going into junior, I liked to throw the open-ice hits. I think they look good and it pleases the crowd. It’s good, I enjoy that."
Kulikov was just a kid with only a year of North American-style hockey under his belt when he surprised many, including himself, by cracking the Panthers roster in 2009. He said he didn't feel the impact of being a full-time pro until about a quarter of the way through his rookie campaign.
"To be honest with you, I didn’t really realize that I’m playing in the NHL until maybe 20 games in when we played Detroit. They were my favourite team. I looked up to the 'Russian Five' (forwards Sergei Fedorov, Igor Larionov and Vyacheslav Kozlov and defencemen Vladimir Konstantinov and Viacheslav Fetisov) when I was younger," he said.
"Going into the Joe (Louis Arena) and playing the first game there, it was kind of an eye opener for me and then I thought, 'OK, here I am.' As I remember, I didn’t think I had a good game, I was so nervous."
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