It’s been 14 years since the Panthers drafted him in the first round, yet he still has a house in the area that he visits every August. Then, it’s usually off to training camp from there to “wherever I may be playing.”
So when Panthers general manager Bill Zito expressed interest in bringing Kulikov back seven years later, it didn’t require much thought. Now, he won’t need to venture far from his summer home.
“I’ve been to the rink already and the place hasn’t changed basically,” Kulikov said. “It felt good, felt like I was coming home.”
Kulikov made his first public appearance Monday at the South Regional/Broward College Library since signing a one-year, $1 million contract with the Panthers on the opening day of free agency. He read a book to a crowd of energized children as part of the team’s Summer Reading Tour, then held a Q&A session with the jittery kids full of hard-hitting questions while Kulikov wore his new No. 7 sweater — the same number he wore in his first Panthers’ stint.
“It’s different than the last one I wore,” Kulikov said. “It feels nice. When I didn’t play for the Panthers, it’s been in my heart. I’ve been a Panther since Day One. Now I’m back and I’m very excited.”
Kulikov, 32, has bounced around the league after spending his first seven seasons with the Panthers. Since an offseason trade in 2016, he’s played for seven different teams, not including this upcoming season with the Panthers.
However, three of those seven years away from the Panthers were spent with the Winnipeg Jets from 2017 to 2020. Panthers coach Paul Maurice was the Jets’ coach at the time, and Kulikov said the two of them had a conversation last summer when Maurice was hired by the Panthers.
“I like the idea that he’s the coach here too, because I really liked his style and him as a person in Winnipeg,” Kulikov said.
The Panthers traded Kulikov to the Buffalo Sabres, where he spent just one season. Then, he signed a three-year contract with the Jets before agreeing to a one-year deal with the New Jersey Devils in 2020. That started Kulikov’s hopscotch around the league with a deadline trade to the Edmonton Oilers in 2021, then a free-agent signing with the Minnesota Wild, followed by a trade to the Anaheim Ducks and another trade to the Pittsburgh Penguins in March.
The Wild are the only team he’s spent an entire season with since 2020, in which he produced seven goals and 17 assists for 24 points, the most in his career since 2011-12 when he was with the Panthers.
“So much flexibility with him,” Zito said the day Kulikov signed with the Panthers. “Up and down, he can play with anybody, plays both sides. Wonderful guy, lives here and we’re really happy.”
With defensemen Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour expected to miss an uncertain amount of time at the start of next season and Radko Gudas and Marc Staal departed via free agency, Kulikov’s veteran presence was a necessary add for the Panthers. He joins a free agent class that consists of three other defensemen — Niko Mikkola, Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Mike Reilly — all of which are expected to plug the Panthers’ defensive holes until Ekblad and Montour return.
Then, if and when everyone’s fully healthy, it will be a battle between eight veteran defensemen all vying for ice time.
Kulikov, while only being signed for one season, said he hopes to stick with his original team after spending so many years on the move.
“I don’t anticipate it being exactly the same as it was when I played here six years ago,” Kulikov said. “Of course it’s gonna be different. It just felt right to be here in this team representing the Panthers for this upcoming season and hopefully seasons to come.”
Kulikov’s exact standing on the Panthers’ defensive totem pole is difficult to predict, but he certainly will be in the mix.
And if he plays up to Florida’s expectations, perhaps his wish of stability will be granted next summer.