The last time Dmitry Kulikov and the Panthers had to negotiate a contract, it took much longer than anyone figured.
Kulikov held out for more money in 2012, and by the time the league locked out its players, he still didn’t have a deal.
This time things went much smoother.
On Friday, the Panthers locked up the defenseman with a three-year contract valued at a reported $13 million.
As a restricted free agent, Kulikov’s rights would have been held by the Panthers for the next two seasons. With this new deal, Kulikov will not be an unrestricted free agent until the end of the 2016-17 season.
“He has so much ability and this is a fair contract. It’s what guys around the league are getting paid,” general manager Dale Tallon said.
“Now it’s time for him to make a statement and be a leader on our team. He has all the ability in the world. He just has to channel it in the right direction. We’re happy to have him in the fold. He’s a great kid, still a young guy. He has tremendous ability. It’s hard to find those guys.”
Kulikov spent much of the 2012-13 lockout playing in his native Russia for hometown team Yaroslavl Lokomotiv.
When the lockout ended Jan. 12, Kulikov still didn’t have a contract with the Panthers.
The teams negotiated through the shortened training camp, with Kulikov rushing back to the States after agreeing to a new two-year deal just before that season opened.
Kulikov missed the 2013 season opener, citing jet lag from his marathon trip back to the United States, but played in the second game and ended up appearing in 34 games before having his season shortened by a shoulder injury that required surgery.
Since being drafted 14th overall by the Panthers in 2009, Kulikov has played for only two teams. He started with Florida as an 18-year-old rookie, and aside from his brief stint (22 games) with Lokomotiv, has spent his entire career with the Panthers.
Kulikov, 23, has played in 313 NHL games over five seasons and has made his share of mistakes.
Last year, Tallon was rumored to have made a deal with Colorado for Kulikov, although he denied it. Kulikov was benched by then-coach Peter Horachek after numerous miscues, but Kulikov finished the season strong.
“He’s on the upswing and still has a lot of good hockey in front of him,” Tallon said. “He’s one of our young defensemen and now he’s one of those guys who needs to be a leader for our younger guys. We expect big things out of him.”
Because of his past contractual squabbles with the Panthers, there has been rumors that he might head off and play in Russia.
Last season, Kulikov denied wanting to play in the KHL, saying his short time there during the lockout satisfied any craving he may have had to play in his homeland.
“I would like to face those people saying those things and ask them where they are getting their information,” Kulikov said of the rumors at the time.
“Wanting to go back to Russia? Those words have never come out of my mouth. I think the people starting that are just trying to create more drama for the league or whatever. … I had a great experience in the KHL during the lockout. That was my first chance to play there. I left when I was 17. I wanted to play there and see how it is.
“But that experience was enough for me. I experienced it. My dream since I was a kid was playing here. I’m living the dream.”
With Kulikov signed, the Panthers have now come to agreements with all restricted free agents except winger Jimmy Hayes.
Florida signed center Brandon Pirri to a two-year deal earlier this week.
“He’s very highly skilled, has a great shot,” Tallon said. “We’ll use him a lot for offense. He’ll get stronger and better defensively as he goes.”
Hayes – who scored a career-high 11 goals after coming over to Florida in the Kris Versteeg deal with Chicago – has elected to take the team to arbitration. Hayes’ hearing is scheduled for July 29 in Toronto.
The Panthers and Hayes could come to an agreement beforehand, however, and Tallon said the two sides were still talking.
“We hope to get a deal done before arbitration,” Tallon said.
Florida also has seven defensemen under contract for next season, not including Aaron Ekblad, the top pick in last month’s draft. Ekblad is expected to get a chance to make the team in training camp, with Tallon saying there’s no rush to make a deal.
“We’ll wait until rookie camp,” Tallon said. “He handled himself very well at prospect camp, did a good job. I’m not worried about that. We’ll get him signed when the time comes.”
One defenseman who won’t be at Panthers training camp in September is Michael Matheson. Florida’s top pick (23rd overall) in 2012, Matheson has previously announced that he’ll return to Boston College for his junior year.
Listed as the Panthers’ top prospect last year by the Hockey News, Matheson has been previously named as the Eagles’ captain for the coming season.
“We want to win when I’m here, so that went into my decision, being ready when I get here,” Matheson said at Florida’s development camp last week. “I want to have an impact on this team when I get here.”