"He's a multi-faceted defenseman who can play any way you want to play it. You want to play a finesse game? He can play it. You want to play physical? He's going to get physical because he can take a hit."
-- Drummondville Voltigeurs assistant coach Danny Brooks
If he had it his way, Drummondville Voltigeurs defenseman Dmitry Kulikov
wouldn't spend much -- if any -- time on the bench in Wednesday's must-win game against the Rimouski Oceanic, host of the 2009 Mastercard Memorial Cup (7:30 p.m. ET, NHLN-US, Rogers).
Kulikov, an effortless skater who controls the pace of a game like a veteran, would spend all 60 minutes on the ice if he had his way, defying the need to rest or even take a breather between shifts.
Hey, that's what whistles are for, right?
"As a coach you have to manage your bench," Drummondville assistant coach Danny Brooks told NHL.com just before the start of the QMJHL playoffs. "But you almost can't stop him. At one point this year we were winning one of our games like 10-3, and so I sit him, I don't play him much in the third period. And I'm resting him because the next night we have a tough game. Well, the next night we're tied heading into the third and I said to him, 'Dmitry, we need you now. Are you tired?' He said 'Why? Why I'm tired? You don't play me last five minutes of last game. How could I be tired?'"
Kulikov played just under 12 minutes in that third period. To anyone else that may seem like a high number, but it's nothing new to teammates and coaches.
"In practice you have to throw him off the ice," Brooks said. "He'll have 8,000 pucks and be shooting, and shooting ... as a coach you have to manage those kinds of guys because come April and May they'd be gassed. So you have to watch him.
"But that's a good problem to have."
The effortless way Kulikov glides around the ice has become increasingly noticeable to just about everyone in Rimouski, Que., this week, as are the monstrous minutes he eats up nightly.
Peter Loubardias, who is doing play-by-play for Rogers Sportsnet, was lauding Kulikov's effortless game when he mentioned he had been broadcasting a game earlier this season in which Kulikov shouldered his usual Herculean workload. Loubardias saw him after the game picking up some post-game food.
"He could barely stand up," Loubardias said.
So Kulikov is mortal after all -- but you'd never know it by watching him.
The silky-smooth defender is a top prospect for the 2009 Entry Draft. After coming in at No. 17 on NHL Central Scouting's midterm rankings in January, he jumped to No. 11 when the final rankings of North American skaters were released in April -- and that was before he anchored his team's blue line en route to a QMJHL championship and a spot in the Memorial Cup.
"Kulikov is a great skater," Central Scouting's Chris Bordeleau told NHL.com. "I would say right now he's got a good chance of playing (in the NHL) next year, the way he handles himself."
Most impressive about Kulikov is the fact that he is still so fresh after likely the most physically and mentally demanding years in his young life.
Begin with the stress of moving to a new country to play hockey and getting exposed to two new languages (French and English). Add to that a demanding 57-game schedule in one of the world's most draining junior-hockey leagues, and then for good measure, throw in 19 more playoff games and a thrilling Game 7 win for the QMJHL championship. In between, he also had 4 assists in seven games for Russia at the World Junior Championship and played in the CHL-NHL Top Prospects Game.
The adjustment has gone just fine, however. He led all QMJHL defensemen with 50 assists and was tied for second with 62 points. He also led the league's rookies in assists and was tied for third in scoring. His plus-34 was second among the league's first-year players. So far in the playoffs, he leads all defensemen in scoring with 19 points in 19 games.
His play earned him an avalanche of postseason honors. He was named a league First-Team All-Star as well as a Rookie All-Star. He also won the Emile Bouchard Trophy as the league's best defenseman; the RDS Trophy as the league's rookie of the year; the Raymond-Lagace Trophy as the league's offensive rookie of the year; and the Michael Bossy
Trophy as the league's best pro prospect.
How has he been able to do it?
"My teammates have helped me a lot," he said, "because when I came, I almost didn't even speak English."
And has it been worth it?
"Oh yeah," he said, laughing. "I have more opportunity for scouts to see me, and without it I would never get drafted.
"Learning the North American style and learning how to play against the Canadian players," he said, has been the most valuable aspect of this incredible learning experience.
His coach sees the difference as well.
"He's a multi-faceted defenseman who can play any way you want to play it," Brooks said. "You want to play a finesse game? He can play it. You want to play physical? He's going to get physical because he can take a hit.
"He could've made life easy and stayed in Yaroslavl Locomotiv and been a superstar in the KHL. But his dream is to play in the NHL and bring his family from Russia to North America." -- Drummondville assistant coach Danny Brooks
"He's a North American player who happens to have a Russian last name."
Brooks has played a big role in Kulikov's transition to all things North America.
"It's, 'What are we going to do to get better tomorrow?' That's what he's focused on," Brooks said. "I'm with him every day and I've never heard him ask, "Where am I ranked?' Instead he wants to know, 'What I have to do tomorrow, today, to get better?' And that's what's partially made him so successful -- that willingness to work.
"He could've made life easy and stayed in Yaroslavl Locomotiv and been a superstar in the KHL. But his dream is to play in the NHL and bring his family from Russia to North America."