When the Florida Panthers brought in Niko Mikkola, some thought he would be the physical presence they would need to replace the outgoing Radko Gudas.
After all, the 6-foot-5 defenseman is capable of serving up some powerful hits.
But, yet …
“Nobody hits like Radko,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said. “There is a different kind of contact in Niko’s game that is constant.
“Gudas will find you, but Niko will get a piece of you four times in one shift and that’ll wear teams down because he closes the gap so well and swings in. He’s always bumping and engaging players on the ice.
“He is equally as physical; But it’s a different kind of physicality.”
Mikkola has showed he can do a lot more than play a physical game pretty quickly.
“He is perfectly built to play the game we play,” Maurice said.
“He is unusual in the fact that he is a big man who plays a quickness game. He closes gaps, uses that long reach to kill plays, and gets into corners.
“We felt that he could excel here in that game and he has been really, really good. And he will get faster. He’s only a month into it, he’s got a partner that’s been solidified and we think he can play against the other team’s best.”
Mikkola has done it all for the Panthers at times, jumping up into the rush to create scoring chances and using his size and speed to snuff out opposing rushes in any way possible.
That part of his game has been unknown to the league for the most part, as the 27-year-old spent the first three seasons of his NHL career shuffling in and out of the lineup on a deep St. Louis team.
It wasn’t until last season that Mikkola played 81 games, split between the Blues and the New York Rangers, getting his first full taste of the NHL.
The Panthers have given him his biggest opportunity yet.
With Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour out, Mikkola has played by far the most minutes per game in his career at 20:17.
He has also been a big reason why the team has been able to get off to a 10-4-1 record without its two best defensemen in the lineup.
“I feel like I play better when I play more,” Mikkola said. ” It’s been good for me so far. The system is good, the team is good, so let’s try to keep rolling.”
The improvements made in his game have been apparent.
Through 15 games, Mikkola is already just an assist shy of matching his 81-game total from last season.
His 23 shots on goal are also nearly half of his career-high of 62.
The bump in time-on-ice has helped that but his seamless fit in Florida’s system helped him even more.
“From the first game I’ve been in this system, I knew it fit my game well,” Mikkola said. “I play an aggressive game and the goal is to close the gaps right away. That’s what we do and that’s what I’m good at.”
His speed and aggressiveness has helped him come up with some big plays for the Panthers on the defensive end.
Most notably, he quickly caught up to a San Jose Sharks 2-on-1 and sprawled out to snuff it out quickly with the help of his long reach.
In total, Mikkola leads all Florida defensemen in blocked shots (34) and is second in hits (20) behind partner Dmitry Kulikov.
But his aggressiveness has shown far beyond the defensive end of the ice.
Florida’s system encourages defensemen to jump up into the rush and Mikkola has been no stranger to it.
Even for a player who only had five goals and 23 points in his career prior to joining the Panthers.
He has consistently been jumping up to provide help in the offensive zone and even use his 6-foot-5 frame to screen the goalie.
“It’s fun to try some offense sometimes,” Mikkola said. “We’re told every time we see something to go in. Defense first, but it’s fun sometimes.
“I’m free to play aggressively everywhere on the ice and I like it.”
PANTHERS ON DECK
FLORIDA PANTHERS @ LOS ANGELES KINGS
- When: Thursday, 10:30 p.m.
- Where: Crypto.com Arena, Los Angeles
- TV/Streaming: Bally Sports Florida, ESPN+
- Radio: WAXY 790-AM; WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932, NHL App
- Last season: Los Angeles won 2-0
- This season: @Los Angeles, Thursday; @Florida Jan. 11
- All-time regular season series: Los Angeles leads 25-14-0, 3 ties