With a Ryan Suter-sized hole in the lineup, Bill Guerin had to semi-reconstruct his defense corps in free agency last summer. Replacing a franchise cornerstone, 25+ minute a game defenseman isn’t so easy, especially with $12+ million in dead cap on the horizon. Dmitry Kulikov, along with Jon Merrill and Alex Goligoski, seemed like a perfectly whelming trio of reinforcements. Not the biggest batch of names. But they are three reliable, experienced players who addressed a major need.
In hindsight, it was a great bit of business from Guerin. In a season where Jared Spurgeon, Matt Dumba, and Jonas Brodin have all missed significant time to injury, those three stepped up and kept the wheels of this Wild club churning.
This year, Kulikov has arguably contributed the most of those three free agents to the Wild. He has more games played (73) than any other Wild defenseman, can play in all three zones, and slots in anywhere in the lineup.
He started the season playing on the third pairing with Merrill, a duo that was unexpectedly very reliable together. In just under 500 minutes on the year, they’re +8 with an expected goals share of 52.8% (per MoneyPuck). For comparison, last year’s third pairing of Ian Cole and Carson Soucy was +19 with an expected goals share of 50.2% in 556 minutes together. Those sound like a lateral move, and it essentially is. Still, Guerin got this year’s duo for half the price of Cole and Soucy.
Another thing about Kulikov: His play seems much less dependent on who he’s playing next to than the Wild’s other third-pair defensemen. Right now, he’s succeeding alongside Brodin in a top-4 role.
The Wild felt Dumba’s absence when he sustained a lower-body injury in mid-February. Minnesota struggled to find the right mix on the blueline in games against the Florida Panthers and Winnipeg Jets. They even allowed six goals in back-to-back games.
However, Kulikov and Brodin didn’t seem to work at first. Kulikov had his first opportunity with Brodin in Minnesota’s 7-3 win in Edmonton. In the next seven games that Dean Evason paired him with the Swede, he posted an expected goals share of 47.3% at even strength, and the Wild lost five of seven to end a disastrous February.
Brodin and Kulikov looked uncomfortable and too conservative when paired together, unable to replicate the chemistry Brodin and Dumba built over the last half-decade. It was no surprise that Minnesota broke out of their rut and went on an 11-3-2 run when Dumba returned from injury.
Now Dumba is again sidelined indefinitely with an upper-body injury. Luckily for the Wild, the results are much better for Kulikov and Brodin this time. In six games without Dumba, Minnesota is 4-0-2 with wins over three Western Conference teams fighting for playoff berths. During this stretch, Kulikov is +2 with an even-strength expected goals share of 58.6%. Impressive stuff, considering the forward talent available in St. Louis, Los Angeles, Edmonton, and Dallas.
Against the Edmonton Oilers, Kulikov and Brodin shut down the most explosive player on earth in Connor McDavid. The two combined for a 79.4% expected goals share at even strength, playing nearly every single minute against Edmonton’s top line. For a more detailed look at how Brodin and Kulikov shut down the game’s best talent, read Tony Abbott’s breakdown last week.
With both Merrill and Goligoski extended through next season, it makes you wonder if Kulikov has a future in Minnesota. They now have six defensemen signed for next year, with Jacob Middleton needing an extension and Calen Addison biding his time in Iowa.
Middleton has solidified a spot next to Spurgeon, and Addison can only stay in Iowa for so long. He looked very much the part in extremely limited minutes this season. All that’s left for him to do is gain more experience.
That leaves Goligoski, Merrill, Kulikov, and Addison vying for two spots, assuming Dumba returns next season. Trading one of Kulikov or Dumba makes the most sense for the Wild in terms of flexibility, but both are difficult players to replace.
It’s partially why the Goligoski extension was so puzzling. Given Middleton’s play, Merrill and Kulikov’s consistency, and a prospect like Addison waiting in the wings, it seemed like a certainty that Goligoski was on his way out a month ago. Money is tighter now, and that could come at Kulikov’s expense.
Kulikov has put together an impressive season in Minnesota. He’s gotten solid results amongst a mixed bag of defense partners. His play with Brodin as of late is excellent. He’s been active at the blueline, sound defensively, and much more active in the offensive zone. He had a roller-coaster of a second half, but he’s finishing strong and doing so when needed most.