Panthers address immediate needs in free agency, and bring back Kulikov

SUNRISE, FL - DECEMBER 10: Dmitry Kulikov #7 of the Florida Panthers skates with the puck during a game against the Washington Capitals at BB&T Center on December 10, 2015 in Sunrise, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images) (Mike Ehrmann, 2015 Getty Images)

SUNRISE, Fla. – The Florida Panthers are anticipating being without some players when this coming season opens, and general manager Bill Zito filled in the projected voids in free agency.

And those moves came on a day where the team had to send fan favorite Anthony Duclair out in a trade as well.

The Eastern Conference champions loaded up on defensemen — two-time All-Star Oliver Ekman-Larsson and former Panther Dmitry Kulikov headlining the group — as part of a big class that struck deals with Florida on Saturday.

Ekman-Larsson and Kulikov are both on one-year deals, as is fellow defenseman Mike Reilly. Another newcomer to the blue line, Niko Mikkola, signed a three-year deal — and the Panthers kept defenseman Lucas Carlsson on a one-year, two-way contract.

The Vancouver Canucks bought out Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s contract two weeks ago, agreeing to pay the 31-year-old Swede $19.33 million — spread over the next eight years to reduce its salary-cap hit. Ekman-Larsson had four years and $29 million remaining on the eight-year, $66 million contract he signed with Arizona in 2018.

Kulikov — who still keeps a home in South Florida — played for a pair of playoff teams with Florida in 2012 and 2016, and now has a chance to join a team that is a Stanley Cup contender that figures to be without Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour when the coming season starts in October as they recover from injuries they suffered in the playoff run.

“To be honest, I don’t really know him, so I don’t have that emotional bond to him as a former Panther. It was purely on his play,” Zito said of Kulikov. “If you look at his game, everywhere he goes, he can play with different types of players. He can play different situations. He’s a fit man. There’s so many elements to what he does.”

Another move came Sunday: Florida added forward Evan Rodrigues on a four-year, one-way contract. He had 39 points for Colorado this past season.

“Rodrigues brings skill and the ability to compete in three zones of the ice,” Zito said. “A culture fit and someone who adds versatility to our lineup, we can’t wait to welcome Evan to the Panthers.”

Florida also kept Grigori Denisenko, signing the forward to a two-year, one-way deal that suggests he’s ready for full-time stints in the NHL. Another forward added to the mix was Kevin Stenlund — a 6-foot-5 forward with NHL experience with Winnipeg and Columbus.

“Stenlund is a really unique guy, whose combination of size, skating and skill is rare,” Zito said. “A dynamic player with a big shot, we are excited to add some size to our lineup as we welcome Kevin to South Florida.”

Florida lost defenseman Radko Gudas ($12 million, three years) to Anaheim and goalie Alex Lyon — a huge part of the run to the playoffs this past season — to Detroit. Lyon was replaced essentially by Anthony Stolarz on a one-year, $1.1 million deal.

Zito lauded Gudas and Lyon and wished them well.

“We’re most appreciative for everything those two guys did for us,” Zito said. “I mean, I don’t need to restate it here. Everybody knows — and the most important thing — is the character and quality and the people that they both are.”

He expressed similar sentiments after making the deal involving Duclair. Florida got forward Steven Lorentz and a fifth-round pick in 2025 from San Jose for Duclair.

“A great ambassador for the sport of hockey, we would like to thank Anthony for his contributions to the Panthers organization and in the South Florida community,” Zito said.


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