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Niko Mikkola: A Great Addition to the Florida Panthers

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Florida Panthers defenseman Niko Mikkola, pictured against the Ducks on Jan. 15, is enjoying a fine first season with his new team. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)

FORT LAUDERDALE — On the day Niko Mikkola signed A three-year contract with the Florida Panthers, general manager Bill Zito also inked three other free-agent defensemen.

With Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour missing the start of the season following surgery, Zito needed depth on his blueline, so Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Dmitry Kulikov, and Mike Reilly joined Mikkola.

The Panthers had earlier signed Uvis Balinskis.

Add returning veterans Gus Forsling and Josh Mahura to Lucas Carlsson, Casey Fitzgerald and Matt Kiersted and Florida had no less than a dozen NHL-capable defenders under contract.

Mikkola was the only one of all the newcomers to receive a multi-year, one-way contract. 

Zito obviously had confidence in Mikkola’s ability. 

He will never be considered an offensive threat, but a shutdown defender was just what the Panthers needed to replace Radko Gudas, who received an offer he couldn’t refuse from Anaheim.

Mikkola has impressed. 

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He and Ekman-Larsson are the only defensemen to have played in all 52 games for the Panthers this season.

The new contract was a confidence booster. 

It was for more time and money than his prior contracts with St. Louis.

“It stabilizes you,” Mikkola said. “You don’t have to worry about what do you do the next year and where you are going to play. It’s new for me. My longest (contract) was two years, so it’s nice to get that feeling.”

As for the logjam on defense early this year, Mikkola did not seem concerned. 

“I just focused on myself,” he said. “I knew what I was going to bring to the team, and they knew what kind of player I am, so I was just focusing on myself and getting ready to play.”

He was paired early on with Kulikov and then with Montour when the latter returned from injury.

With his and Kulikov’s steady play, Mahura has been unable to regularly draw back into the lineup after recovering from an early season injury.

Last season, Mikkola had been part of a deadline deal which brought Vladimir Tarasenko from St. Louis to the Rangers for the playoff run. 

Although he received little attention, Rangers GM Chris Drury said at the time that Mikkola was an essential part of the deal and the trade might not have gone through if Mikkola was not included.

Despite the encouraging words, the Rangers did not re-sign him.

“We were talking with Drury after the season, and he was happy how I played,” Mikkola said. “It wasn’t the result we wanted in the playoffs. I felt that I was playing pretty good hockey, and he liked it, but it was a tight cap situation, so it didn’t work out. I knew Florida wanted me when free agency started, so this worked out best.”

The NHL recently made modifications to the way it calculated hits to achieve more consistency. 

It added to Mikkola’s total, but he didn’t need the change to prove that he is the top hitman on the Panthers and one of the best in the league at that fine art. 

He leads the team in hits and blocked shots.

“I take pride in blocking shots and putting my body on the line,” Mikkola said. “That’s part of my hockey. I hit and try to close the play. I play a very simple game.”

ON DECK

FLORIDA PANTHERS @ PITTSBURGH PENGUINS 

  • When: Wednesday, 7:30 p.m.
  • Where: PPG Arena, Pittsburgh
  • TV/Streaming: TNT/HBO Max
  • Radio: WPOW 96.5-FM2; WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
  • Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932, NHL app
  • Season Series (Panthers Lead 2-0) — At Florida: Panthers 3, Penguins 1 (Dec. 8). At Pittsburgh: Panthers 3, Penguins 2 (SO) Jan. 26; Wednesday.
  • Last Season: Penguins won 2-1
  • All-time Regular Season Series: Penguins lead 56-37-8, 4 ties
  • All-time Playoff Series: Florida d. Pittsburgh 4-3, 1996 Eastern Conference finals
  • Up Next for the Panthers: Thursday at Buffalo, 7 p.m.

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