This afternoon, the New Jersey Devils signed a veteran defenseman with the intent of strengthening their blueline. The team announced that they signed left-handed defenseman Dmitry Kulikov to a $1.15 million contract for the 2020-21 season. The 29-year old is entering his twelfth season in the NHL after spending seven with Florida, one in Buffalo, and the last three with Winnipeg. Kulikov is now coming to Newark.
At first glance, this is a sensible decision. The Devils’ defense was really bad last season. With Andy Greene traded away and Mirco Mueller not qualified, the Devils needed someone to play on the left side of the defense. They do have prospects who can battle for a roster spot, but someone with experience would be ideal to have around in case they are not ready to take on significant minutes. Kulikov fits this bill. In case they are ready, then Kulikov can switch over to the right side as general manager Tom Fitzgerald stated that his ability to play both sides was a factor in this signing. Even if the signing does not work out as intended, not much is lost. Kulikov is signed only for next season and his cap hit does not have a major impact. According to CapFriendly, the Devils still have over $17 million in cap space. That is more than enough money to re-sign Jesper Bratt and Mackenzie Blackwood.
A sensible question to ask: What does Dmitry Kulikov do? He is a defenseman. As in, he plays defense. If you are expecting offense out of Dmitry Kulikov, then you will be disappointed. The last time he put up more than 20 points in a season was back in 2014-15 with Florida. He put up two goals and eight assists last season. This past season was the first time he averaged a shot per game since the 2015-16 season with Florida; and in this past season he had 57 shots on net in 51 games. Kulikov played 6:20 total in man advantage situations last season for Winnipeg. He is not an offensive contributor. Over at Arctic Ice Hockey, Harrison L described Kulikov’s 2019-20 with the Jets with the following statement about his play:
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.
If Lindy Ruff and his staff expect Kulikov to attack, then either they are going to use him very differently than he has played in the last three seasons, or they are going to find he is not very good at it. Harrison’s post on Kulikov did note that he played better than expected in 2019-20, describing him as someone who can steady a blueline. The New Jersey Devils blueline absolutely could use some more steadiness after last season.
What did a better-than-expected season look like from Kulikov? According to NHL.com, Kulikov was fourth on the Jets blueline in total ice time per game (20:01) and even strength ice time per game (18:32). At Natural Stat Trick, Kulikov was also fourth on the team in 5-on-5 ice time per game (18:01). Kulikov was solidly in Winnipeg’s top four, typically on a second pairing based on ice time. The team’s rates when Kulikov was on the ice were respectable when it came to shots and shooting attempts. The team’s CF% with Kulikov was 50.85%, which is above the break-even mark. The Winnipeg offense did not die with Kulikov on the ice. Actual shots (SF%) were a bit below the break-even mark at 49.29%, but with a shots against rate of 30.15, the Jets did not turn into a sieve with Kulikov on the ice. In fact, his SA/60 of 30.15 was the third best on a Jets team that gave up a lot of shots. This is not amazing, but it is solid and better than a lot of what the Devils defenders were doing last season.
Unfortunately, the team’s rates with Kulikov with respect to scoring chances were very poor. When Kulikov was on the ice, the Jets took 48.9% of the scoring chances and 41.1% of the high-danger scoring chances. Winnipeg allowed 25.71 chances per 60 minutes and 11.18 high-danger chances per 60 minutes with Kulikov. That is not good. It contributed heavily to his equally not-good-looking expected goal rates. With Kulikov, the Jets had an expected goals for rate of 1.95 and an expected goals against rate of 2.41. An expected goals percentage of 44.78% is far from solid for any player, never mind a defenseman. However bad these stats were for Kulikov, his SCA/60 and HDCA/60 rates were among the better ones on the Jets last season. Winnipeg as a whole gave up a lot of scoring chances with almost all of their defensemen. As a team, they finished next to last in high-danger chances allowed per 60 minutes. The Jets only out-chanced their opponents in both all scoring chances and high-danger chances when Carl Dahlstrom was on the ice and that was only for 15 games at 13:36 per game. What this means is that perhaps Kulikov is not especially awful when it comes to defending scoring chances. They also suggest that expecting Kulikov to be a complete lock-down defender around the crease may be too much.
What will not be too much for Kulikov would be the penalty kill. He did see shorthanded ice time with the Jets last season for an average of 1:22 per game. While his rate stats alone do not look impressive at Natural Stat Trick, Kulikov was among the better defenders on the team. Among Jets defensemen who played at least 40 penalty killing minutes last season, his CA/60 was the third lowest, his expected goals against rate was the second lowest, and his SCA/60 was the second lowest. The shots (sixth out of seven) and high-danger chance (fourth out of seven) rates were not as impressive. What it does suggest is that he could be a decent option as a defender for the Devils’ second unit on the PK.
The largest concern I have with Kulikov is similar to the concern I have with Ryan Murray: availability. Since being traded from Florida in 2016, Kulikov has played in 47, 62, 57, and 51 games in the last four seasons. That is only 30 more games than Murray over the same four seasons; someone else the Devils signed on defense to help them out but carries a real risk of not being able to play a lot. His injury history may not be as worrisome as Murray’s, but not being able to play is an issue in of itself and it is an issue for Kulikov. Kulikov may be a better fit than expected in New Jersey and could do a decent job as a defender. However, it means less if he is only able to play for a part of the season. Hopefully, the Devils accounted for this when deciding whether to negotiate and sign Kulikov.
The first glance is an accurate one. I see this signing more to fill in the gap for Mueller. Kulikov is a relatively cheap veteran defenseman who can play on a second pairing and could likely play on a third when everyone is healthy. Provided he gets paired with someone more responsible to attack and help the play move forward in transition, he can have some real use. He can do a lot of the unheralded work on defense that the Devils clearly struggled with last season. He cannot do everything, but he can do some things well and if he does, then he is an upgrade for Mueller. Rather than lean on one player to fill in the big minutes Greene took, they may be distributed more among Butcher, Ryan Murray, and Kulikov. I think that can work in theory, at least. I think how the coaches utilize Kulikov will go a long way to making the most out of his one-season contract. If they do not or they find one or two of their prospects are really ready for the NHL, then the Devils can simply let him go free next Summer and try to fill a spot on the left side of the defense with someone else. This is a sensible signing in that sense.
Now that you know my thoughts about this signing, I want to know what you think. Do you think the Devils were smart to sign Dmitry Kulikov? What do you expect from Kulikov on the Devils? Where do you think he will be in the lineup? Do you expect Fitzgerald to make any more unrestricted free agent signings in the next few weeks? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the Kulikov signing in the comments. Thank you for reading.