While some fans of Buffalo and Florida may find it a rather curious move placing recently acquired defenseman Dmitry Kulikov atop the left side of the Sabres blueline, the former Panther may have a number of things working in his favor this season towards that placement.
At Day-2 of the NHL Entry Draft held in Buffalo, Sabres GM Tim Murray once again landed a player that fits his ideal for building this team--a quality young-vet. Kulikov is in his prime at the age of 25 and already has 460 regular season games under his belt plus another 13 in the playoffs. He has great size at 6'1" 204 size, skates very well and has a definitive edge to his game. "He'll hit you. He'll submarine you. He'll make you pay the price if your head's down," said Murray to the gathered media at the post-trade presser.
He also has a "great first pass," said Murray, to help transition the puck up ice. "We certainly like guys who make a tape-to-tape pass and with our forwards, if you can make a tape-to-tape pass, good things are going to happen in transition. [Kulikov's] just a great fit."
Kulikov was drafted by the Panthers in the first round (14th-overall) of the 2009 draft. He was selected one spot after Buffalo took winger Zack Kassian. On a side note, rumors had it that the Panthers were interested in trading up one spot with Buffalo that draft year to make sure they landed him. His pre-draft profile had him as more of an offensive-minded defenseman with two-way acumen, excellent puck movement, and a high compete-level. Although his offense has diminished, like a person who loses one of his senses, the rest of his game became more acute and as he became more and more acclimated to how he'd fit into the NHL. With his focus on offense subsiding some of his game, most notably the edge with which he once played, came to the fore again.
"I think [that edginess] just came out later on in my career with the Panthers," he said on a post-trade conference call with the media. "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 Sabres have been looking for a top-four (or better) left-handed defenseman for over a year. Last year they signed right-handed Cody Franson to a two year deal and were overloaded on that side the entire 2014-15 season. Also in that right-handed mix was Mark Pysyk, a key player in the deal for Florida.
"It was a priority to obtain a left shot to balance that out," said head coach Dan Bylsma at draft presser announcing the trade. "We were able to do that with a guy who was in the playoffs last year with his team, played in the top-pairing, played with Ekblad and played really, really well. Aaron Ekblad is the Panthers franchise defenseman who just signed an 8 yr./$7.5M contract extension with Florida on July 1st.
In trading for Kulikov, the left side looks pretty set this season (barring injury or further trades) with 32 yr. old veteran Josh Gorges and 22 yr. old Jake McCabe opposite right-handers Rasmus Ristolainen, Zach Bogosian and Franson. "It's what we needed," said Bylsma.
Although the trade to Buffalo caught him a bit off-guard because they were never mentioned to be in the mix, as a seven-year veteran, Kulikov took it all in stride telling George Mitchell of the Miami Herald in August, “I’m excited to change the scenery a little bit, go on to a new team. It felt right for some reason. After being here so many years … There were times I wanted Florida to trade me, then we drafted some good players and the team started to turn around and it was fun, so, at that point, I wanted to stay. But when the trade came, it felt like a good opportunity for me to step up my game.”
As for going from a 103-point Panther team to the non-playoff Sabres, Kulikov told Mitchell, "Buffalo has a good team and although they didn’t make the playoffs, you saw how solid they were. This is a great challenge, a great opportunity. I am excited and I know the fans are excited for this season. We’re going to compete."
Will that compete for Kulikov be on the top-pairing with Ristolainen?
Murray didn't come right out and say, but at the presser he said he believes Kulikov was used that way. "When they needed a goal in the playoffs, he was on the ice late in the game. 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.”
The No. 2 opposite Ristolainen is up for grabs. The Sabres could once again use Gorges, who played quite well despite that role being higher than his skill-level dictates. They could go with the up-and-coming Jake McCabe who also played very well as a rookie on the second pairing.
Or they could go with Kulikov.
Building the 2016-17 Buffalo Sabres roster:
LW, Evander Kane/ C, Ryan O'Reilly/ RW, Kyle Okposo
D, Rasmus Ristolainen/ D, Dmitry Kulikov
For more on Kulikov click here for notes on the Sabres draft weekend or here for the many facets of the Kulikov/Pysyk trade.