CORAL SPRINGS — When Radko Gudas left in free agency, the Florida Panthers knew they needed to replace his defensive skill and physicality on the blue line. They hope to have found that in Niko Mikkola.
Now, Mikkola is not a 1-for-1 comparison to Gudas by any means.
Florida’s new offseason acquisition, who they inked to a four-year deal worth $2.5 million per season, stands at 6-foot-4 — which is a whole five inches taller than Gudas, whose speed and tenacity made up for what he lacked in size.
Instead, Mikkola brings steady defensive ability with an added punch of physicality through his size and his ability to keep up with opposing forwards.
General manager Bill Zito had high praise for Mikkola when he signed the 27-year-old defenseman in July, saying an anonymous NHL star told him that he “hated to play against” him.
“Every time I had the puck, his reach was so long and he skated so well that it didn’t matter if I had a trick to beat him,” the unnamed player told Zito.
Mikkola liked hearing that.
“That is a game I like to play,” Mikkola said. “I like to be annoying, so I guess that is a compliment for me.”
Even with limited playing time — Mikkola appeared in just 170 games in four seasons for the St. Louis Blues and New York Rangers — how he earned his reputation was apparent in the first day of Panthers training camp.
Throughout Florida’s 1-on-1 drills, Mikkola dominated against the likes of Matthew Tkachuk and Sam Reinhart, keeping up with them with solid edge work, leveraging them off the puck with his big body and poking the puck away with his swift stick work.
He was not afraid to throw the body around either.
Even against his new teammates.
“He is a big guy, he’s got a big, long reach, he can move and I think he can step in and be a big force for us,” said Sam Bennett, who took on Mikkola in his fair share of battles on Thursday.
“It is really good when you see guys that are hard to beat in practice, so hopefully you can see some more of that.”
The Panthers will be leaning on Mikkola to show that same skillset pretty heavily to start the 2023-24 season.
Star defensemen Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour are expected to miss the first two months of the season with injuries they played through while Florida made its run to the Stanley Cup Final.
For the first time in his career, Mikkola has a chance to be one of the top defensemen on a strong team — at least for a little bit — and he is ready for it.
”It is a great opportunity for me,” Mikkola said.
“We’re missing a couple of guys — and hopefully they come back soon — so somebody has to step up and that’s me.
“I will just try to play my own game: A good, hard defensive game and use my skating ability.”
Mikkola finds himself changing area codes for the second time in six months after getting traded to the Rangers at the trade deadline but has some familiar faces surrounding him to help make that adjustment easier.
He played with Eetu Luostarinen in Finland from 2016 to 2018 and has gotten familiar with Anton Lundell, Sasha Barkov and Gus Forsling since inking his new contract in June.
Lundell and Luostarinen also suited up alongside Mikkola in the Finnish Elite League’s alumni game this past summer.
“It makes it easier for me,” Mikkola said. “They show me all of the places and introduce me to the other guys.”
Luostarinen has seen the growth Mikkola has made since they both played for KalPa in Finland’s Liiga together.
The strides he made while learning from a deep defense core in St. Louis and playing a big role in New York’s stretch run to the playoffs last season were apparent when the two took the ice together during the team’s informal skates this past week.
“He can play a strong, strong game,” Luostarinen said.
”He has a good stick with good reach and he is pretty fast for his size.”
Mikkola knows what it takes to win after years of learning from the core that won the Blues the Cup in 2018 and he is prepared for what’s in store for him as training camp wears on.
Panthers coach Paul Maurice has a notoriously grueling camp scheduled — one his players looked back on as they fought through the postseason last year — and it is right up Mikkola’s alley.
“It is tough, but I saw how the guys played in last year’s playoffs. They never gave up,” he said.
”This is how they’re doing it right from Day 1.”
FLORIDA PANTHERS ON DECK
- Thursday-Sunday: Training Camp, Coral Springs IceDen
- Monday: Preseason Doubleheader v. Nashville @ Sunrise; 2 and 6 p.m.
- Oct. 7: Preseason ends; v. Tampa Bay Lightning @ Sunrise
- Oct. 12: Start of 2023-24 Regular Season at Minnesota Wild (Bally Sports Florida)
- Oct. 19: 2023-24 Home Opener vs. Toronto Maple Leafs (BSF)