Dmitri Kulikov has always been something of a lightning rod for criticism. He’s paid around $3.5M and, for about half of his Winnipeg Jets tenure, has played more like a $1M skater. Last year was one of Kulikov’s worst seasons since his Buffalo days, and I didn’t think he’d rebound on a blueline unit with even less defensive talent than the Sabres. Surprisingly, the 2019-20 edition of Kulikov was a serviceable second-pairing defensive skater, even if he still had a few patented brainfarts around his own net.
The concept of “defensive defensemen” is always a bit funny to me because most of the guys who supposedly specialize in locking down their own end, don’t. Kulikov, though, actually earned that moniker this season, doing a pretty solid job of cutting down shot attempts against. On the ice, you could see his defensive gapping, board seal-offs, and lane shutdowns generally improve. Kulikov can be effective when he uses his strong, thick frame to block out opposing skaters, and he was able to do that for many stretches throughout the season. He still had some moments where he got turnstiled by speedy attackers or gave up possession near the walls on a bad puck play, but he did so a lot less frequently.
If you’re looking for someone who can skate the puck in transition and create offensive opportunities, Kulikov isn’t your man. He really is a defensive specialist, and wasn’t able to contribute much in the offensive zone. That didn’t stop him from dropping below the faceoff circles and attempting to apply offensive pressure when he felt there was an opportunity. Going forward, it’d probably be best if he left the more aggressive pinches to his linemates.
With Kulikov’s contract running out, I’d be surprised if the Jets brought him back. I don’t think it’d be a bad idea to keep him around for another season, especially with how few NHL-calibre D are on Winnipeg’s active roster. If he signs for a much-cheaper deal and handles third-pairing minutes with someone like Tucker Poolman, you’re living well. Kulikov isn’t an elite-two way blueliner, but he can be very decent at steadying your backend when you need old-fashioned defensive work.