Of all of the players the Florida Panthers signed on Day 1 of free agency, they only committed to one of them long-term: Niko Mikola.
And for good reason.
The 6-foot-4, 209-pound defenseman brings a unique combination of size, smooth skating and smart defensive play to a Florida defense core that lacked those elements in the past.
Much of the Panthers’ play on the back end big on speed and is rush oriented; Mikkola brings a contrasting element that could fit in the fabric of their system.
“Mikkola is a great, big defenseman who can really skate,” Panthers general manager Bill Zito said.
“He doesn’t have that offensive dynamic but he goes back, gets the puck, makes the exit pass, and plays against top lines in crunch time minutes. He is also a guy who we think has room to grow and continue to improve and get better in his game.”
The 27-year-old who spent most of his four-year NHL career with the St. Louis Blues has developed a reputation around the league for being tough to play against.
One NHL superstar told Zito that he “hated playing against” Mikkola.
“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.
“It wasn’t going to happen.”
Mikkola played sparingly in a Blues defense which had been one of the deepest in the league early in his career.
He played in 85 games in his first three seasons before getting a real shot at a regular spot in the lineup last year.
In 50 games for the Blues, he had three assists and was a plus-2 before getting shipped to the New York Rangers along with star Vladimir Tarasenko at the trade deadline.
He added a goal and two assists with a plus-4 in 31 regular season games while adding two assists in New York’s seven-game first-round loss to the New Jersey Devils.
“He is someone who we hope can be a part of the fabric,” Zito said. “And join the core and continue to grow with the rest of the guys.”
With Radko Gudas’ departure to the Anaheim Ducks, Mikkola is likely to fill the void he left both defensively and physically.
But it is a different type of physicality that Mikkola brings.
While Gudas, 6-foot, 208-pounds, soars up and down the ice and delivers booming hits, Mikkola is more structured and uses his 6-foot-4 frame to both separate forwards off the puck with his reach and deliver hits when he needs to.
“He is that type of time and space guy,” Zito said.
“He is a big guy with a long stick and he has a physical element to his game. But it’s unique. I think the comparisons to Radko are going to come with that because he is such a unique player.”
FLORIDA PANTHERS ON DECK
- Now: Free agency open
- July 9-15 (approximately): Development camp, Coral Springs
- Mid-September: Training Camp, South Florida
- Sept. 25: Preseason starts, doubleheader v. Nashville @ Sunrise
- Oct. 7: Preseason ends, vs. Tampa Bay Lightning
- Mid-October: Start of 2023-24 Regular Season