The Jets haven’t been among the league’s most active teams in free agency since their return to Winnipeg. They have their reasons.
They’re a small market team with an internal budget, and beyond that, Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff has been adamant about his desire to build through the draft rather than free agency. It’s hard to argue with the results, but it can’t make them a boring follow in summer’s silly-season, otherwise known as free agency.
It caught me off guard then when the Jets chose defenceman Dmitry Kulikov as the guy this off-season to target. And it wasn’t just that the Jets prioritized Kulikov, but that they wasted no expense in doing so. Three years and $13-million is a hefty price to pay.
And no matter what you think of Kulikov as a player — we’ll get to that in a minute — that’s a lot of money for any team to allocate towards a player who was ultimately replacing (upgrading?) Mark Stuart.
But then, there is also the matter of the player in question. Kulikov’s always been a fulcrum in the analytics debate, as someone who was seen to defend well and bring a physical element in spite of underlying data that sometimes suggested the exact opposite was true. In his last season with the Buffalo Sabres, Kulikov was injured, and even his staunchest defenders had little positive to say about his game.
Then again, that debate was always a little bit misplaced, I thought. Kulikov, after all, had as many seasons in the black by Corsi for percentage as he did in the red, and that was mostly on a Florida Panthers team that as a whole struggled to control play.
Kulikov might not have been a possession driver, but there might’ve been an argument worth making that he was more or less possession neutral. Incapable of carrying a pair, but more than able to get by in the right situation.
It appears as though Kulikov’s found that with the Jets. And in return, the Jets have found a capable bottom-four defenceman in Kulikov.
Let’s look at how the on-ice results bare that out for the steady two-way defenceman.
The first thing that sticks out is that Kulikov has a positive goal differential of plus-four. These numbers can be subject to puck-luck though, so they’re not overly reliable indicators of player performance. Still, it’s encouraging.
It doesn’t appear like those numbers are buoyed purely by luck though. On the one hand, Kulikov is benefiting from a 101 PDO, which doesn’t hurt. On the other, Kulikov also has a nearly 51% expected goals ratio too. Based on the volume and quality of the shots exchanged, the Jets should be coming out on top in terms of goal differential.
The most reliable and time-tested way of predicting future goals in the analytics community is by looking at shot attempt rates when a player is on the ice. And in that lens, again, Kulikov’s holding up his end of the bargain. The Jets are controlling close to 52% of the shot attempts at five-on-five with Kulikov on the ice.
Part of Kulikov’s revival has to do with his primary partner — remember, I’m relatively fond of Kulikov, and even I think he’s not a play driving defender. Last year, Kulikov played with the shot attempt black hole known as Rasmus Ristolainen. This year, Kulikov is playing with Tyler Myers, who for all his flaws has been a positive shot attempt differential defender in his time with the Jets.
A lot of Kulikov’s career revival thus far with the Jets has to do with playing in an ideal situation. Another part is that he likely wasn’t as bad as his numbers with the Sabres suggested or his play appeared to those watching. It can be hard to look good on a terrible team after all.
What matters now is that the Jets, who rarely dip their toes into the free agent pool, took a dive and aced the jump. With Dustin Byfuglien and Toby Enstrom out of the lineup right now with injury, Kulikov’s importance to the team this season has been especially noticeable of late.
As this team establishes themselves as a year-round contender, it seems likely that they’ll take more and more risks in free agency, and perhaps even in the trade market. They won’t always work out (the early returns on Steve Mason leave a lot to be desired), but this is a good sign for a team that has the top end talent and will now need to shift gears to insulating that group with good depth.
They’re getting their money’s worth on Kulikov, unlikely as that might have seemed at one point, and that just might embolden them in the future. Good signs, indeed.