Florida Panthers

Florida Panthers’ Dmitry Kulikov: No interest in returning to Russia

With the trade deadline approaching, Dmitry Kulikov says he has heard his name mentioned as a possible candidate to leave the Panthers.

A first-round pick in 2009, Kulikov has spent his entire NHL career in Florida and says he doesn’t want to go anywhere.

Those rumors about him wanting to go back to play in his native Russia? Kulikov said that not only are they not true, but he also has no idea where they started.

“I would like to face those people saying those things and ask them where they are getting their information,” said Kulikov, who returned to Russia to play for the KHL’s Yaroslavl Locomotiv during the lockout of 2012-13.

“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 want to help turn things around here. I want to win here. The year we made the playoffs was like the best thing ever. It’s a totally different feeling. I want to feel that again.’’

Kulikov got a taste of Russian hockey during the lockout and some thought he might stay. Kulikov was a restricted free agent then and was holding out for a better deal. When the Panthers had a quick training camp once the lockout ended, Kulikov was still in Russia. A deal was struck before the season began, however, and Kulikov flew to New York before meeting the team before the season opener.

“I had a great experience in the KHL during the lockout,” Kulikov said. “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.”

Now that contract is about up. Still a restricted free agent, the Panthers hold his contractual rights for another two seasons.

“I try not to listen to those things because they are mostly negative,’’ Kulikov said of the rumors. “You never know who is putting them out there or why. I don’t focus on them. I’m just playing my game.’’

Assistant general manager Mike Santos said the Panthers are still high on Kulikov and want to see him to continue to get better. Although he’s in his fifth NHL season, Kulikov is only 23.

“The KHL offers so much money to players, so you’re always going to hear those rumors,” Santos said. “We’re not worried about them. He came over here as a teenager, he’s now in his fifth season with us. People think he’s farther along in his development, but he’s still young.”

Kulikov had a rough start to the season, with mental errors clouding his game and forcing coach Peter Horachek to bench him for a game in December.

At the time, Horachek said the move would do Kulikov some good, give him a chance to slow things down and just go out and play hockey again.

It definitely seemed to have done the trick.

Kulikov has been much improved and is becoming more of an offensive threat, and the Panthers sure could use some of that.

In the past eight games, Kulikov has four of his six goals this season. Florida finally snapped its franchise-record, power-play drought last Tuesday, courtesy of a Kulikov slap shot.

“I think when I wasn’t playing good, I was getting ticked off at everything. At myself,” Kulikov said.

“There was a lot of frustration. Everyone I talked to told me I had to change my mind-set, be more positive. I think the coaches helped turn me around. I thought it was OK to be frustrated when things weren’t going so well.’’

• The Panthers limped home Saturday night after a once-promising road trip turned sour quickly.

Florida was flying high heading into Boston after a rousing comeback victory in Detroit on Sunday. The Bruins came at the Panthers in waves, however, and blew the game open by the middle of the second period.

The Panthers’ 6-2 loss to the host Bruins was just the start of a rough week, one that included losses to the Maple Leafs and Blue Jackets. All told, the Panthers were outscored 16-6. They haven’t been the same since Boston.

“You would like to think we’re moving forward in a positive way from the Detroit game,” Horachek said. “The Boston game was different from the others. I didn’t like that game at all — any of the periods, any of the time. ... All three games aren’t the same, but the results are. We lost the games. Too many goals against.”

• The Panthers will hold an open practice at the Coral Springs Iceplex Monday at 11 a.m.

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