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Super Bowl Sunday: Fleur-de-Champs

Saints I'm in Charlotte -- OK, Concord, N.C. -- but the Panthers gathered in a restaurant in Raleigh, N.C., on Sunday evening with a few things on the agenda.

First, they needed a place to watch the Super Bowl.

Second, they were together for an annual rite of passage around the league as Florida’s rookies treated their team to what usually is a pricy dinner.

Rookie defenseman Dmitry Kulikov joked Saturday night that he knows his teammates won’t buy the “left my credit card at home’’ excuse when the bill comes, so he’s ready to just take it as it comes.

And that’s kind of how Kulikov has treated this season.

An 18-year-old when training camp opened in September, Kulikov was told by the Panthers that he would have a chance to make the team despite his age.

General manager Randy Sexton was ecstatic when Kulikov fell to the Panthers at 14 in last summer’s draft, Florida having Kulikov in their top four. Contract issues scared most teams away from the talented defenseman, but Sexton said the team researched the issue thoroughly and figured Kulikov could get out of it.

Once he did, Kulikov was cleared to open the season in the big leagues.

“Making the team right out of training camp was great and it’s been everything I thought it would be,’’ said Kulikov, now 19. “I just have to keep playing this way and keep improving every day. I can’t be too fancy. I have to keep things simple.’’

Kulikov had a strong training camp and looked like he belonged in Florida’s first two games in Finland. But he looked the part of a greenhorn in the Panthers’ first game in North America, as Kulikov got burned a few times in Florida’s 7-2 loss to the Hurricanes in Raleigh. Kulikov was a minus-4 in that game.

Coach Pete DeBoer says he can name the mistakes Kulikov has made since. Saturday night, Atlanta’s Evander Kane (taken fourth in last summer’s draft) was awarded an open net goal when Kulikov threw his stick at the puck as it was sliding toward the net. The puck was going in anyway; Kulikov was just trying to make a play.

“I’ve been very impressed. He’s going to be an elite NHL defenseman, not just a good one,’’ DeBoer said. “You forget how young he is. He looks like a seasoned veteran out there, hardly makes any mistakes. If he makes mistakes, for me, they are out of fatigue or is out-muscled. They aren’t mental errors or panic plays with the puck. That’s extremely rare for a defenseman coming into this league.’’

Sexton said he enjoyed interviewing Kulikov during the draft screening process and has enjoyed getting to know him as a member of the Panthers. Kulikov left his family behind in Russia to play in Quebec last season, the thought being he would improve his draft stock by showing the many scouts he could adapt to the North American style of hockey.

Kulikov also wanted to learn how to speak English. In just over a year, Kulikov could be considered fluent in three languages: Russian, English and French. It’s those kind of smarts and maturity that have teammates and coaches gushing over Kulikov’s future.

“We were lucky to get him at 14, but we did our homework,’’ said Sexton, who was Florida’s interim GM at the June Draft when Kulikov was selected.

“He’s shown flashes that he’s going to be a special player. And I use that term carefully. He has such a great passion for the game. He has a twinkle in his eye like there’s no place other than the rink he would rather be. That shows in his work and how he plays the game.’’

TRADE WORKS

Sexton said Sunday morning that the Panthers could make a trade or two before the Olympic break kicks in this weekend. The Panthers offense has been horrendous the past few weeks, with the team mustering just 12 goals in the past 10 games.

Sexton, who said Saturday night that he has spoken to every other GM in the league, says he has as many as nine different trade scenarios in the works.

“We are being active, there’s no doubt about that,’’ he said.

(*) The Panthers have three games before taking a few weeks off because of the Olympics. After the Panthers play host to the Bruins on Saturday, the team won’t return to action until March 2 when Florida returns to Atlanta.

Although some players will skate in Coral Springs during the 10 day down period, it will be on their own; the Panthers aren’t even allowed to open up the locker room for those players. The team officially returns to practice on Feb. 24. The league trade deadline is March 3, but moves cannot be made during the break.

(*) The Panthers will practice at the RBC Center on Monday afternoon before playing the Hurricanes there on Tuesday night.

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