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Dmitry Kulikov: The Florida Panthers Were ‘Always in My Heart’

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Dmitry Kulikov is pictured as a member of the Florida Panthers during a game in Columbus on Feb. 27, 2016. Kulikov re-signed with the Panthers on July 1. (AP Photo/Paul Vernon)

There were times when Dmitry Kulikov played for the Florida Panthers that he hoped the team would trade him somewhere else.

Florida’s first-round pick in 2009, Kulikov could not help but feel that some of his best seasons were being wasted on a team that, at times, could not get out of its own way.

But things did turn around and the Panthers became good again.

Then they traded him.

In the summer of 2016, a few months removed from a first-round series loss to the Islanders, the Panthers traded Kulikov to Buffalo for Mark Pysyk as part of a roster retooling.

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At the time, Kulikov said he welcomed a change of scenery and the chance to play somewhere else.

Only he found out things are not always better somewhere else.

Since leaving the Panthers in 2016, Kulikov has played for seven different teams over the course of seven seasons, some of which ended early due to injuries.

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This offseason, Kulikov said he made it clear that he wanted to come back to the Panthers as a free agent and, with Florida in the midst of another defensive reshuffling, he signed a one-year deal worth $1 million.

Kulikov, now 32, is back with the Panthers.

Things are a little different than when he was last here.

Not only do only Sasha Barkov and Aaron Ekblad remain from that 2015-16 Atlantic Division championship team, but the team changed their logo that offseason as well.

Last week, Kulikov took part in his first public event with the Panthers since re-signing with the team — he read to children in Pembroke Pines as part of the team’s summer reading program — and slipped on his new jersey for the first time.

While the No. 7 on the back on shoulders is the same as it was then, it was definitely a changed look for ‘Kuli.’

“It’s a little different than the last one I wore,” Kulikov said. “It feels nice. When I didn’t play for the Panthers, it has been in my heart. I had been a Panther since Day 1 and now I am back and very excited. I got drafted here, started my career here. It feels like it was some unfinished business.

“We had a good team before I left and the Panthers continued the good runs, were a playoff team and this past season made a really good run to the Finals. I am really excited for the opportunity to come back and contribute to the success the team has had in the years I haven’t been here. It feels good.’’

Kulikov kept his place in Palm Beach County, living there part-time in the summer before he headed off to wherever it was he was playing.

He spent one season in Buffalo before signing as a free agent with the Winnipeg Jets where Paul Maurice was the coach.

In 2020, he started his run of collecting jerseys, starting that season with the Devils but ending in Edmonton. Then it was on to Minnesota before spending last season with Anaheim and Pittsburgh.

When this past season ended, Kulikov watched his old team rally from a 3-1 deficit to upset Boston in the first round and then run past Toronto and Carolina to play for the Stanley Cup.

“I made a point that I wanted to come back and be a part of this team,’’ Kulikov said. “The team is really good, being part of the Panthers again is a big reason why I wanted to come back.”

Kulikov says he has spoken to both Barkov and Ekblad — “they were very excited when they heard the news. They congratulated me.” — and visited his old haunts at the IceDen in Coral Springs where he ran into Maurice.

“I like the idea that he is the coach. I like his style, I like him as a person,’’ Kulikov said. “It seems like it all came together.”

With Ekblad and Brandon Montour expected to miss the start of the upcoming campaign due to injuries sustained during the season and the playoffs, Florida general manager Bill Zito signed a number of defensemen to not only add depth to the Panthers but to withstand the losses of two of his best blueliners at least early on.

Not only did Kulikov join on, but Florida also added Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Niko Mikkola and Mike Reilly while re-signing Lucas Carlsson.

Kulikov will be in the mix for playing time when camp opens up next month.

“I don’t expect it being the same as when I was here years ago,’’ he said. “It’ll be different. But it felt right to be here with this team, representing the Panthers this season and hopefully for seasons to come.”

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