WINNIPEG - By now, the 2016-17 season is long forgotten in the mind of the Jets' newest defenceman.
Entering his prime as a 25-year-old Top 4 blueliner, Dmitry Kulikov was feeling as good as he ever has about his game after suiting up for the Russians at the World Cup of Hockey last fall.
From there, after a strong showing with his national squad, he was off to join the Buffalo Sabres following an off-season trade, and was eager to get started and make an immediate impact with his new club.
But then, things changed.
During an October pre-season game at Buffalo's KeyBank Center, Kulikov collided with Toronto forward Colin Greening and was sent spiralling into an open door at the Maple Leafs bench.
A normally innocent brush was anything but this time around.
The defenceman went spine-first into the jagged dasher board and suffered a freak back injury that bothered him off and on for the rest of the year. In all, he appeared in only 47 games, and was unable to play more than a month straight in the back half of the campaign without suffering the pain or mobility issues that triggered the whole thing in the first place.
"It takes you out of your rhythm," Kulikov said "You play 10 games, miss 20, and then do it all over again. You don't get into a groove or get familiar with the system. It's tough mentally because it's always on your mind and bugging you on a daily basis. It definitely gets frustrating because you can't break that cycle. That was toughest part."
As frustrating as it was at the time, every bit of it is behind him now as he looks forward to life as a Jet. He's coming off a strong off-season, is feeling "100 per cent," and is invigorated by the idea of playing a key role with a team on the rise.
"Looking at the roster in the summer, it got me really excited about where the team is going," said Kulikov, who signed a three-year deal with the Jets that carries a $4.33 million average annual value just a few hours into free agency back on Jul. 1.
"There's a lot of talent here and I'm excited to be part of this group."
Kulikov spent most of the summer in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where he joined fellow Jets Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler and Jacob Trouba training both on and off the ice.
"The positive attitude you bring when coming to a new team helps. It makes it easier if you know a few players, which I do. It makes that transition easy," Kulikov said. "I didn't know (Wheeler) all that well before, but now it feels like I've known him for a long time now. He's a great guy and he's been saying that we have a good group of guys here, so it should be fun."
Fun, he added, means winning a fair bit, too.
And with his addition, the Jets are in a better position to do that than they were at this time last year.
While Kulikov hasn't shown the offensive punch he became known for in his draft year, his defensive game has really flourished after learning from longtime veterans Willie Mitchell and Bryan McCabe in Florida.
But after a -26 season on a Sabres team with a -32 goal differential last year, he says he has something to prove in that regard here, too.
"Looking at the teams that win in this league, they all have a lot of puck possession. If we have the puck, it's tough for the other team to score. But on the other hand, defensively, you have to be sound and everyone has to do their job, to rely on and trust each other. If we have that, our forwards, I think they're one of the best groups in the league. We're definitely going to score some goals, but we've got to keep the puck out of our net, too."
As for the punishing physical game he's developed over the past few years, Kulikov credits his childhood role model, the scrappy Darius Kaspiritis, for showing him the way with those fiery open-ice deliveries.
"He was one of my favourite players when I was younger because of the physical element he brought. Going into junior, I liked to throw the open-ice hits. I think they look good and it pleases the crowd. I enjoy that."
His play not only pleased the crowd, but the litany of NHL brass that came to watch him play with the Q's Drummondville Voltigeurs. It was Kulikov's one and only QMJHL season, but after scoring 12 goals and adding 50 assists in only 57 regular-season games, it was enough to propel him to the NHL as a first-round pick in the 2009 Draft.
Before then, the very idea of one playing in the world's best league had hardly crossed his mind.
"It wasn't until I was 17 when me and my agent discussed that possibility of coming [to North America] to play junior," Kulikov said. "About midway through my junior year, it became clear that I might be playing in the NHL (one day). Before that, I thought I was going to be playing in Russia. I wanted to get into the KHL back then. It was a tough position for me, with where I was at the time. I was with Yaroslavl and they had a strong farm team, so it was tough for me to get in, so that was why I made the decision to leave for junior.
"From there, it snowballed. There were a lot of scouts there and about midway through the year, I started to show up in the draft rankings. It made it real that I might just get drafted."
Kulikov broke into the NHL as an 18-year-old and was immediately thrust into the spotlight, playing big minutes with the struggling Panthers in 2009-10. It wasn't easy, but the many experiences and tough times he faced that year made him who he is today.
"I didn't really expect anything when I came to my first training camp. I wasn't even thinking that I was going to make the team - I just wanted to play to the best of my ability. I ended up sticking around for that first year and to be honest with you, I didn't even realize that I was playing in the NHL until maybe 20 games in when we played Detroit. They were one of my favourite teams and I looked up to the Russian Five (Sergei Fedorov, Igor Larionov and Vyacheslav Kozlov, and defencemen Vladimir Konstantinov and Viacheslav Fetisov) when I was younger. Going in the Joe and playing my first game in there, it was a real eye-opener for me. I thought, 'OK, here I am.' I don't even think I had a good game because I was so nervous.
"I had some experience going through some tough times and I think that helped me as a player, to learn how to deal with it and use it to make me stronger mentally."
Years later, he endured once again.
Now, with a 'lost year' behind him and an exciting new season only weeks away, Kulikov is ready to help the Jets take the right steps, too.
- Ryan Dittrick, WinnipegJets.com