Defenseman Dmitry Kulikov has been on something of a scoring spree of late, with three goals in the past six games. He also was the one who took care of the Panthers’ frustrating power-play drought with a wrist shot through traffic in the third period of the game Tuesday night against the Boston Bruins.
But forget about the scoring. That’s all fine and good, but that’s not what’s important about Kulikov’s play of late. Put very simply, Kulikov is playing some of the best hockey we’ve seen from him since he joined the Panthers as a first-round pick in 2009. More to the point, we’re seeing the reasons he was a first-round pick in the first place.
Kulikov’s recent surge came after head coach Peter Horachek decided to make him a healthy scratch for a home game against the Ottawa Senators back on Dec. 3. The decision certainly had some shock value at the time because Kulikov has so long been seen as a young player with tremendous upside and also because it was the first time in his career he had been a healthy scratch.
But the reality is that Kulikov wasn’t playing anywhere near his potential at the time, and Horachek decided that taking a step back was perhaps the best way for Kulikov to start moving forward again.
Looking back, is there any doubt that was a great move by Horachek?
At the time of his benching, Kulikov had three points and a minus-9 ratio in 27 games. Since then, Kulikov has eight points in 25 games and his ratio is even.
With his better performance, Kulikov also has seen his ice time increase. He played 20 or more minutes 11 times in the first 27 games; he’s had 16 such games in the past 25. In the impressive 5-1 victory at Pittsburgh on Jan. 20, Kulikov actually led the team in ice time, a distinction that almost invariably always goes to fellow defenseman Brian Campbell.
Kulikov’s roller-coaster ride has become even more relevant in recent days after fellow former first-round pick Erik Gudbranson also was a healthy scratch. The circumstances are a little bit different because part of Gudbranson’s recent struggles, per Horachek, can be attributed to the young defenseman having to adjust to playing with a facemask as the result of his recent orbital bone surgery.
The basic idea, however, is the same: Taking a step back to hopefully take several forward.
One thing for sure, Horachek has to hope for the same results for Gudbranson that he got with Kulikov.
“A month and a half ago we’re all talking about Kuli,” Horachek said after the morning skate in preparation for the game against the Colorado Avalanche last Friday. “And he’s been playing exceptional. He’s on top of his game and he’s playing hard. He can defend and he’s skating well and he’s creating. He’s doing a really good job and that’s when your minutes go up.”