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Florida Panthers Retool Blueline with Big Group of Signings

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Vancouver Canucks defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson is pictured playing against the San Jose Sharks on Dec. 7. He signed a one-year deal with the Panthers on Saturday. (AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vásquez)

Dmitry Kulikov is not the biggest name the Florida Panthers signed on the opening day of free agency although he is perhaps the most familiar.

Kulikov, 33, was one of five defensemen signed by the Panthers on Saturday as general manager Bill Zito set out to retool his team’s blueline after its depth was put to the test last season.

With both Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour expected to miss the start of the upcoming season — and, with Radko Gudas and Marc Staal moving on — Zito had his work cut out.

In looking at things now, however, even without Ekblad and Montour, the Panthers appear to be OK due to their defensive depth, something they did not have last season.

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“We have been relatively fortunate through the years with injuries,” Zito said. “There’s going to be attrition, but competition is good. We think we’re going to have opportunities for everyone which are real. They’re really going to get a chance.”

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The day started with news that Oliver Ekman-Larsson, a two-time All-Star with the Arizona Coyotes, was signing a one-year deal worth $2.25 million after the final four years of his eight-year, $66 million deal (signed with Arizona) was bought out by Vancouver.

Florida then signed former Boston defenseman Mike Reilly, signed Niko Mikkola to a three-year deal and brought back Lucas Carlsson on a one-year, two-way deal.

Of course, with all of these additions meant some subtractions.

Gudas, who played extremely well for the Panthers since signing on in 2020, got a big deal with Anaheim and will not return.

On Monday, Staal signed a one-year deal with the Flyers.

Florida Panthers Free Agent Tracker: Who’s Here, Who’s Gone

Assuming that Ekblad and Montour will not be in the lineup when the season starts, what will Florida look like defensively?

Not as good as it would have with those two playing, obviously, but not too bad.

Florida could pair Gus Forsling with Ekman-Larsson with one of those two taking over quarterbacking duties on the top power play.

Mikkola will likely start on one of Florida’s top two defensive pairings to start the season, something that could change when Ekblad and Montour return.

The Panthers now have a lot of left-handed defensemen which means a number of players will have to play their offside, something coach Paul Maurice was reticent to do last season.

That means some adjustment although with the players the Panthers have brought in, they are used to it.

Grading the Free Agent Moves of the Florida Panthers

With the Panthers having some salary cap breathing room, both Lucas Carlsson and Matt Kiersted could start the season with the big club with one — or both — heading to Charlotte when things start getting sorted out.

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