Before pulling the trigger on Dmitry Kulikov, a player the Winnipeg Jets felt could shore up the left side on defence, head coach Paul Maurice spent hours poring over film to be sure they were making the right decision.

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This article was published 29/12/2017 (1488 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Before pulling the trigger on Dmitry Kulikov, a player the Winnipeg Jets felt could shore up the left side on defence, head coach Paul Maurice spent hours poring over film to be sure they were making the right decision.

"I watched every shift he took last year and I saw an injured player," Maurice recalled after his team’s morning skate on Friday, ahead of a game against the visiting New York Islanders. "And then even at times when he got healthy, the effect of that injury changes the way you play defence."

Chris O’Meara / The Associated Press files</p><p>Shaking off a back problem, Jets defenceman Dmitry Kulikov (right) has regained his confidence and is playing as well as he ever has.</p></p>

Chris O’Meara / The Associated Press files

Shaking off a back problem, Jets defenceman Dmitry Kulikov (right) has regained his confidence and is playing as well as he ever has.

When Maurice, who is in his 17th season as an NHL head coach and fourth with the Jets, looked deeper, what he saw from Kulikov as he skated up and down the ice with the Buffalo Sabres were glimpses of what made him stand out during much of his seven seasons with the Florida Panthers.

Hindered by an injury to his lower back that kept him out for three long stretches, Kulikov finished the 2016-17 campaign with just five points in 47 games. But while he wasn’t producing on the score sheet, where he was making improvements, Maurice said, was with his speed and decision-making with the puck.

"Where he was at his best… is he could get a puck off the wall — a rimmed puck — handle the puck off the wall and get it to somebody’s stick very quickly. His first-pass instincts were quite good under pressure," the Jets coach said.

"When you got a bad back and you can’t turn and you can’t get to that puck... you never get to the point where you’re touching it under pressure or right when a guy gets to it — you’re always second to the puck. So now you spend the whole time defending, trying not to get beat and you come off doing things with the puck. I’m not talking going coast to coast, but we think he can pull it across the line, we think he can shoot it and — this is something we’d like to see all our backend do a little bit more of — creating that shooting lane up top. We’re starting to see the quickness in his game and he’s having bouts of stronger and stronger blocks of hockey."

When the Jets signed Kulikov to a three-year, US$13-million deal on the first day of free agency in July, they knew they weren’t getting a scoring threat on the blue line. Kulikov has never reached 30 points in a season, with his highest total coming in his third year in the NHL, in 2011-12, when he registered 28 points in 58 games.

It’s a high price tag for a player who was expected to slot in on the third pairing in his first season with the Jets — behind Josh Morrissey and Toby Enstrom on the left side — but one who has, at age 27, still plenty of good years ahead of him to move up the depth chart.

"What we like most about Dmitry is he’s constantly looking like he’s getting back to the game in Florida and then some," Maurice said. "His quickness is coming back, his touches with the puck and now some physicality coming back in. Especially off the rush we find he’s getting quicker and confidence is a big piece of that."

Regaining that confidence after suffering the back injury — which occurred after he was checked into an open bench door — remains a work in progress. In fact, Kulikov said that even though he played 473 games with the Panthers, fans in Florida rarely got to see the kind of player he believes he is.

It helped that the Jets had already made the decision that Kulikov would start the season with Tyler Myers as his partner, so they could build a connection right away. It wasn’t by design that Myers had gone through a similar situation the year before, when he was limited to just 11 games because of a series of injuries, but it did help bring the two closer together. Kulikov wasn’t about to suggest the two were playing with a chip on their shoulders, but they both knew, individually, they had something to prove.

"When you’re missing most of the year with an injury, you feel like your game might slip a little bit or you might not be the same player as you were before," Kulikov said. "When you start going and feeling good, you get that feeling back, get that confidence back and really stop thinking about the injury and just focus on hockey. For him and for me, I bet you it’s the same feeling — that it’s just good to play hockey and get that confidence back, know that you’re a good NHL player."

Comfort between the two has steadily improved in recent weeks thanks to an increase in playing time. With Dustin Byfuglien and Enstrom — the Jets’ second pairing — currently out of the lineup, Kulikov and Myers have jumped an entire step in the pecking order. Where Kulikov used to hover around 17 minutes per game on most nights, he’s often eclipsing the 20-minute mark now.

Not all has been perfect this year — rarely is it ever for a player on a new team and in a new system — and Kulikov knows he must continue to improve to earn his playing time. But there’s an excitement he has for his game, on a team he believes is just around the corner from, like him, taking the next step.

"I knew that we had a good team here, but when I signed, I thought that this team was not only on the verge of making the playoffs, but were on the verge of winning the Stanley Cup," he said. "We’ve proved that this year, that we can play against top teams in the league and that we are one of the top teams in the league. There is an excitement to being on a winning team, and I’m here to show what I’m capable of."

jeff.hamilton@freepress.mb.catwitter: @jeffkhamilton

Jeff Hamilton

Jeff Hamilton
Multimedia producer

After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.