SUNRISE, Fla. — The Florida Panthers are anticipating being without some key defensive players when they raise the Eastern Conference championship banner in October, and general manager Bill Zito filled in the projected voids in free agency in a hurry.
Ekman-Larsson and Kulikov are both on one-year deals. Another newcomer to the blue line, Niko Mikkola, signed a three-year contract. And the Panthers kept defenseman Lucas Carlsson on a one-year, two-way contract.
The Vancouver Canucks bought out Ekman-Larsson’s contract two weeks ago, agreeing to pay the 31-year-old Swede $19.33 million, spread over the next eight years to reduce its salary-cap hit. Ekman-Larsson had four years and $29 million remaining on the eight-year, $66 million contract he signed with Arizona in 2018.
He is the prize of this group for Florida, a mobile defenseman who can play special teams, and has averaged 23:08 time on ice across his career. Even last season, on a team playing out the string and utilizing prospects down the stretch, he still finished with a 20:10 clip for the Canucks.
Zito — in a news conference Saturday — recalled how he knew he was signing the right type of player, when the GM told reporters he was prepared to talk to Ekman-Larsson about all of the luxuries a South Florida lifestyle can present. And instead of talking about the weather, all the veteran told Zito was “I want to win.”
Kulikov, who still keeps a home in South Florida, played for a pair of playoff teams with Florida in 2012 and 2016 and now has a chance to join a club that is a Stanley Cup contender that figures to be without Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour when the coming season starts in October as they recover from injuries suffered in the playoff run.
“To be honest, I don’t really know him, so I don’t have that emotional bond to him as a former Panther. It was purely on his play,” Zito said. “If you look at his game, everywhere he goes, he can play with different types of players. He can play different situations. He’s a fit man. There’s so many elements to what he does.”
Florida lost defenseman Radko Gudas ($12 million, three years) to the Anaheim Ducks, creating another open slot on defense. But Mikkola can help fill that void, a rugged 6-foot-4, 209-pound veteran, who finished last season with the New York Rangers. Mikkola, 27, began the season with the St. Louis Blues before being dealt at the trading deadline.
“Niko’s tough, physical presence and skating ability make him a great complement to our blueline,” Zito said. “We are looking forward to welcoming him to South Florida.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Panthers reshape defense with Ekman-Larsson, Kulikov, Mikkola