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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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Panthers wasted a LOT of money. They got less physical and smaller on the backend.


Check this out:

Radko Gudas (6’)
Nick Cousins (5’11)
Anthony Duclair (5’11)


Niko Mikkola (6’5)
Oliver Larsson (6’2)
Dmitri Kulikov (6’1)
Anthony Stolarz (6’6)
Mike Reilly (6’1)
Lucas Carlson (6’0)


Cousins didn’t go anywhere, he’s under contract until the end of the year. IMO Mikkola is a huge improvement over Staal, (at this point in his career anyway), both defensively and physically, and of course we’ll miss Gudas, there aren’t many guys as defensively sound as him that still bring that physical edge. Kulikov plays a physical game and is as solid as they come, Ekman-Larson, although he’s been slowed by recent injuries, is healthy and ready to o prove he’s worth a long term deal, let’s not forget, it was only 5 years ago he led the league in… Read more »


If I were the GM, I would stash Ekblad on LTIR for the entire regular season & sign someone like Dumba, and IF we make the playoffs then bring Ek back. However, I think he should spend this entire season healing up, for sure. Let’s not rush him back. Sad to say but we may be better off without him.


Bob’s contract is really hampering us from elevating this roster to official “contender” status. Will we be in the playoff mix?…. maybe. But we def. are not the favorite to come out of the east, that’s for sure. I wish we could have gotten a guy like Hanifin, DeBrincat, or Matt Dumba… we would be FINE with Knight & Stolarz. However, it doesn’t seem like Zito is too happy with Spencer & Bob has an awful NMC. I hope we can shop him once that MTC kicks in after this coming season.

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