|Kulikov played with Yaroslavl Lokomotiv during the lockout. (Getty Images)|
Already down one defenseman (Erik Gudbranson) due to injury, the Florida Panthers needed to get restricted free agent Dmitry Kulikov signed and in camp before the season starts to help solidify the defense. They did just that on Thursday afternoon.
Reports earlier in the week said Kulikov (who was playing in the KHL during and even after the lockout because he did not have an NHL deal yet) and the Panthers weren't close to an agreement. But Panthers assistant GM Mike Santos said the dialogue started back up earlier Thursday and then Sun-Sentinel Panthers beat writer Harvey Fialkov reported the deal was done.
Panthers justs signed D Dmitry Kulikov to 2 yr deal, confirmed by agent and Kuli.#flapanthers— Harvey Fialkov (@hfialkov) January 17, 2013
Among the restricted free-agent defensemen, Kulikov was behind the others (P.K. Subban and Michael Del Zotto) as far as attention goes, but he's a key piece for the Panthers.
Drafted in the first round three seasons ago, Kulikov made the Panthers' roster in his first shot and has been growing into a solid defenseman. He was billed as a two-way defenseman in the draft. Now that's starting to show as his offense began to catch up with his defense last season. Kulikov finished with a career-best 28 points in 58 games. His season was shortened to 58 games because of a leg injury.
Returning to the Panthers, Kulikov will likely assume his spot on the No. 2 pairing with Mike Weaver or Ed Jovanovski. The top pairing figures to be Brian Campbell with Filip Kuba, who takes the place of the departed Jason Garrison.
The Panthers figure to have a tough task in defending their Southeast Division crown, but getting Kulikov back is a big help. At this point, his return is more crucial to the team than the return of Gudbranson, who was injured in the offseason and should miss just the first couple of games.
As of yet, no money terms have been reported.