Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com
Recently acquired Buffalo Sabres defenseman Dmitry Kulikov was coming off of a strong playoff performance in a top-four, shutdown role for the Florida Panthers last year so he was a little surprised when he was traded to the Sabres. “When the draft came I thought that something might go down," said Kulikov on conference call yesterday. "I was comfortable in Florida. I didn't think that something like that was going to happen, but it did. It's part of the business."
He wasn't the only one that was surprised. Fans in Sabreland were accustomed to hearing names of defensemen like Anaheim's Cam Fowler, St. Louis' Kevin Shattenkirk and even Montreal's PK Subban being bantered about prior to the 2016 NHL Draft. Sabres GM Tim Murray had been talking about bringing in a top-four/top-two left-handed defenseman for months and the hockey world knew it, but Kulikov never entered into the conversation. At least here in Buffalo.
The Boston Bruins, who seem to be ready to do a significant overhaul on the back-end, were rumored to be in the market for Kulikov the week before the NHL Draft. CSNNE.com's Joe Haggerty reported that the B's were kicking the tires on the edgy Kulikov even though the Russian-born defenseman wasn't said to be on the block. There were some sticking points to the potential deal as well which included his impending free agency and the cost as Haggerty's source had the Cats asking for which, according to Haggerty, was "something in the neighborhood of Boston’s 29th pick in the first round and a Frank Vatrano-level prospect."
Defenseman were hard to come by at the NHL Draft this year as Florida itself took one of the better d-men on the market off the board in former NY Ranger, Keith Yandle. The offensive minded, powerplay quarterback will lock down the team's top pairing with Aaron Ekblad. Another name on the market was Alex Goligoski who's rights were traded by the Dallas Stars to the Arizona Coyotes for a 2016 fifth-round pick. The Yotes signed Goligoski to a five-year contract extension soon thereafter. Both Fowler and Shattenkirk were the big names left at the draft but supply and demand meant the cost was extremely high, as in the Ducks were said to have wanted Buffalo's first round pick--8th overall--in exchange for Fowler.
Murray, however, was able to consummate a deal with Florida that seems to work for both sides. In it the Sabres sent RHD, Mark Pysyk--whom the Panthers believe will fill the hole on the right side left when gritty, right-handed d-man Eric Gudbranson was traded to Vancouver--to the Cats along with two picks. According to Murray, Pysyk was always the centerpiece of the deal, but his final piece was to swap second-rounders with Florida. The goal for Buffalo was to move into a position to draft a highly-regarded forward prospect who was projected to go in the mid-lower first round in Rasmus Asplund at No. 33, which they did. The Panthers were quite contented taking Buffalo's pick at No. 38 as they felt the player they were focused upon in Adam Mascherin (35 goals in the OHL) would still be there. Panthers GM Tom Rowe, an analytics guru, called Mascherin, "the best-goal scorer in the OHL, if not all of Canada,” according to the Sun Sentinel.
It would seem as if both sides got what they wanted in the deals. The Panthers got a righty in Pysyk whom they believe to be a solid top-four guy, and one who also fits well in their analytics movement (Murray called Pysyk an "analytics darling") plus they were still able to draft the player they wanted. Even though the Sabres parted with yet another third-rounder, they were able to get the prospect they coveted in Asplund, and they got the 25 yr. old Kulikov which fits right into the young-vet motif Murray's been crafting.
Kulikov was drafted by Florida with the 14th pick in the 2009 NHL Draft, one spot behind the Sabres that year. Word at the draft table at the time was that the Panthers so wanted the two-way, puck-moving, offensive-minded defenseman that they were willing to trade up one spot with Buffalo to make sure they got him. The Sabres, however, did not want to take a chance on losing the player they coveted in Zack Kassian so it never transpired.
The skinny on Kulikov his draft year centered around his vision, hockey sense, smooth skating, excellent puck movement and high compete-level. Coming out of the draft many had him close to NHL-ready and he did in fact make the team. In his seven seasons with Florida, Kulikov scored 28 goals and added 110 assists in 460 games on a Panthers team that was trying to shake off a long playoff drought.
In his third season Florida finished 1st in the Southeast but it was back down to the bottom part of the league for the next three seasons, something that wasn't lost on him when asked what if there was any disappointment in going from a playoff club to a team building to be a contender. "You know, I don't think so. Every year in the NHL you kind of start over and you don't really know what's going to happen" he said. "It happened in Florida before when we made the playoffs and we thought it was going to be like that every year after. As a young player five years ago I thought that this was how it was going to be and the next three years we were at the bottom of the standings again."
In that vein Kulikov simply stated that "no, he's not disappointed" in the trade or the team he's going to. "It's an opportunity next year," he said. "Looking at Buffalo, playing against them, they have a really, really strong group of forwards that have a lot of skill and are really hard to play against. If I can help out the defensive-corps and get the puck up into the forwards hands I think we're going to have a very successful year."
Kulikov joins a d-corps that includes top d-man Rasmus Ristolainen, whom he may have the opportunity to join on the top-pair next season. Murray didn't come out and say Kulikov was definitely a top-pairing defenseman, but post-draft he described him that way. "When they needed a goal in the playoffs, he was on the ice late in the game,” the GM said. “When they needed to protect a lead late in the game, he was on the ice, so we certainly like what we saw. … He can play in all situations, and he’s competitive. He’s not going to be easy to play against.”
There are a lot of things to like about Kulikov and he brings an added dimensions to the team that Pysyk could not, like his edge. Kulikov is getting a reputation as a hard-hitter, laying out borderline hip-checks that can cross the line into dangerous hit zone. He was suspended for a very low hit right around the knees of Dallas star-forward Tyler Seguin and also took out Markus Grandlund two year's prior with a similar hip-check right in the mid-section.
He said yesterday that he's always played with an edge and that growing up, Darius Kasparitis was his favorite player. Kasparitis was known throughout his career for laying out hard hits, some of them bordering on dirty (or even crossing the line.) He is also known in Buffalo for scoring the Game-7 overtime winner for Pittsburgh in the 2001 playoffs against Dominik Hasek. It would be the last time Hasek donned the Blue and Gold for Buffalo.
But the edginess that Kulikov mentioned lay dormant after being drafted while he adjusted to the NHL and his team. "I think it just came out later on in my career with the Panthers," he said. "As I was getting more comfortable with my game in the NHL it started to come out more and more and I think I found it again.
"I like it."
The more we delve into Dmitry Kulikov, the more there is to like for us Sabres fans. He's a defenseman who looks to have been thrown into the fire in Florida yet somehow managed not to get swallowed up by the circumstances surrounding a bottom-feeding team. Although he's gone from offensive potential to more of a shutdown role, Kulikov has embraced his role and has grown with it. He can still skate and still get the puck out of the zone either with the first pass or by skating it out. He's got size (6'1" 204 lbs.) and smarts and seemingly has really come into his own.
He's also on the final year of his contract.
Kulikov said that the Panthers never approached him last off-season concerning his impending UFA status preferring to leave it to this year. And although his performance this season will dictate whether or not the Sabres would have an interest in re-signing him, don't look for anything to happen on that front until after the expansion draft which will take place the week prior to the 2017 NHL Draft in June.
Buffalo would have been in a bit of a bind if they'd kept Pysyk through the end of the season as all NHL teams must expose certain players to the expansion draft. Pysyk, or one of three other Sabres defensemen would be left unprotected when the new Las Vegas franchise begins to fill out their roster. With Kulikov as an unrestricted free agent, he will not need to be protected. After the draft is finished, should he and Buffalo have a mutual interest in resuming their relationship, they'll be able to hammer out a new deal. If not, c'est la vie.
There's a lot going on for Buffalo in the Kulikov/Pysyk deal, but what it will ultimately come down to is whether the players Murray wanted will have an impact on the team. Murray has his blueprint for the type of player he's looking to build with and Kulikov fits that mold for him. Whether it works out or not is another story but we do know that Pysyk didn't fit what Murray wanted moving forward. He wasn't the first and certainly won't be the last either.