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Donning a bright yellow sweater and socks usually signals a cautious approach, but Dmitry Kulikov had the accelerator rammed to the floor and got locked in a few traffic jams as a result during Monday’s skate at the Iceplex with most of his Winnipeg Jets teammates.
The veteran defenceman says he’s a long way down the road in his recovery from off-season back surgery and should be a full participant when training camp opens later this week.
The 27-year-old Russian will, however, require medical clearance from the team. The Jets are scheduled to undergo their physicals Thursday, followed by fitness testing Friday.
While battles for jobs with the NHL club begin in earnest Saturday morning, Kulikov won’t shy away from mini-conflicts on the ice in the preceding days.
“I’m trying to push myself. Yellow just means I’m waiting to be cleared by doctors before training camp, but I feel pretty good. No concerns,” Kulikov said.
Kulikov suffered what was thought to be a season-ending injury as he leaned in to fire a shot during Winnipeg’s 3-2 victory over the host New Jersey Devils on March 8. The club said it was an aggravation of a problem that hobbled him the previous season (2016-17) in Buffalo, limiting him to just 47 games with the Sabres.
Two weeks later, he was scheduled to undergo season-ending surgery but chose to forgo the procedure after getting some additional medical advice. He was sidelined for the rest of the regular season and the first two rounds of the playoffs, but was a surprise choice to dress for Game 5 of the Western Conference final — with longtime defenceman Toby Enstrom in the press box — against the Vegas Golden Knights.
Less than a week later, Kulikov went under the knife and then spent 10 weeks recovering and rehabbing — a strain both physically and mentally — before he resumed skating in mid-August near his home in Florida.
“They tell you to take it easy, don’t do much. Lay in bed, rest, some walking is good to keep everything moving,” he said of his post-op routine. “After a few weeks, the rehab starts and it’s kind of slow and you take baby steps toward your goal, which is being 100 per cent. The thing is not to push yourself too hard. One day you might feel good but you’re still in the recovery process, and another day you feel sh——.
“It’s also a big mental thing with the recovery, not to get frustrated when you don’t feel good for a couple of days. That’s what the rehab was like, feel good for a couple of days and then not so good. Two steps forward, one step back.”
Kulikov, signed to a three-year US$13 million (average annual value of US$4.33 million) in the summer of 2017, had a tentative start to the 2017-18 season but slowly emerged as a reliable, responsible third-pairing guy, alongside towering partner Tyler Myers — who had his own share of injuries the year before.
It turned out to be a bounce-back campaign for both former first-round draft picks (Myers in 2008 by Buffalo and Kulikov a year later by Florida).
“Right after training camp, I thought we had really good chemistry and we continued that throughout the year. We had some injuries on the back end but, no matter what, it felt like they wanted to keep us together for most of the year. We really had some strong games,” said Kulikov, who finished with three goals and eight assists, while posting a plus-six rating.
“At the end, it sucked that I got hurt and missed a lot of the playoffs. Other than that, the year went really good. I got back on the horse last season after a tough year in Buffalo and really gained a lot of confidence.”
Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).