Kulikov recently signed with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl of Russia's Kontinental Hockey League. The KHL has been an attractive destination for NHL players since the lockout began. NHL stars such as Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin have already made the jump to the KHL.
Kulikov is currently a restricted free-agent and doesn't have a contract with the Panthers. The team made Kulikov a qualifying offer during the summer but no deal was reached and negotiations stalled.
The 21-year-old defenseman is a native of Lipetsk, Russia. Due to his hockey prowess, Kulikov has been playing in North America since he was 17 years old. He has remained active in his home country by representing Russia in two IIHF World Championships but has never played there on a professional level.
Players from teams across the NHL are making reparations to play in other leagues during the lockout and the Panthers are no exception. Last week TSN reported that the Panthers' center Marcel Goc was heading to Germany to play hockey for the 2012-13 season.
Deals like this make fans nervous because there is no absolute guarantee that the players will return when the lockout is lifted. If they find they can make more money overseas or they realize they enjoy playing in their home countries, it could make it difficult to come back to the NHL.
When, or if, the NHL season begins this year, the Cats will need Kulikov to anchor the defensive corps. Aside from the first line of Brian Campbell and Mike Weaver, the Panthers' defense is a mixture of old veterans and inexperienced youngsters. Kulikov is still young and has valuable NHL experience under his belt, which makes him a key piece to the Cats' depth chart.
The Panthers have quite a bit invested in Kulikov, who they selected in the first round of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. In his three seasons with the Cats, Kulikov has shown continual improvement in point production. Last season Kulikov only played 58 games due to a knee injury but still scored more points than he did in the 2010-11 season when he played in 72 games.
Kulikov is a young player who is on the verge of entering the prime of his career. He has the ability to be a top defenseman in the NHL and live up to the expectations of a first round draft pick. There is a strong chance that Kulikov will return to the NHL when the lockout is over but that's an uncertainty that many fans would rather not face.
More from this contributor:
All statistics from Yahoo! Sports
All player(s) contract, team history and injury information from TSN.ca
Kristian Eberwein is a freelance journalist from Orlando, Florida. He was an English major at the University of Central Florida and has been a part of the Florida hockey community for the past twenty years. Follow him on Twitter @KrisEberwein
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