BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Dmitry Kulikov was initially excited upon learning the Florida Panthers had acquired and then signed free-agent defenseman Keith Yandle to a long-term contract last week.
Little did Kulikov realize that Yandle’s addition would lead to him being the odd man out a few days later, when the Panthers traded the seventh-year defenseman to the Buffalo Sabres.
“I was comfortable with Florida,” Kulikov said during a telephone conference call on Tuesday. “I didn’t think that something like that was going to go down. But it did. It’s part of the business. And I’m excited for the future.”
The 25-year-old took the move in stride because his role as a top-four defenseman isn’t expected to diminish in Buffalo. By acquiring Kulikov in a trade made early in the second round of the NHL draft on Saturday, the Sabres addressed a critical need by adding a left-shooting defenseman.
Though Buffalo’s defensive pairings won’t be set until training camp, Kulikov is expected to open next season playing alongside either Rasmus Ristolainen or Zach Bogosian.
It’s a familiar role for Kulikov, who averaged more than 21 minutes of playing time per game over the past five seasons.
“I’m happy to take on that responsibility,” said Kulikov, who spent much of last year playing alongside Aaron Ekblad. “I think change is sometimes for the best. Maybe, whatever happens, happens for a reason. So maybe I’m meant to be in Buffalo.”
In exchange for Kulikov, the Panthers acquired defenseman Mark Pysyk, who struggled establishing a regular role during four seasons in Buffalo. The teams also swapped second-round draft picks in a move that helped the Panthers free up $3.25 million in salary cap space.
The Russian-born player is in the final year of his contract, and eligible to become an unrestricted free agent next summer.
Kulikov played more of a defensive role in his recent seasons in Florida, which selected him in the first-round of the 2009 draft. He had one goal and 16 assists in 74 games last season. Kulikov’s career high for goals is eight, in 2013-14, and points is 28, in 2011-12.
The Sabres believe Kulikov has more offensive potential, and were impressed with his goal and three assists in Florida’s first-round playoff series loss to the New York Islanders in April.
Kulikov believes he can up his offense, too.
“I haven’t been as productive as I wanted to be in the NHL and obviously, I want to grow in that part of the game,” he said. “I’m just happy for a fresh start and happy for the opportunity in Buffalo.”
Kulikov isn’t expected to be the only new offseason addition for the rebuilding Sabres, who intend to be active once the NHL’s free-agency period opens on Friday. Buffalo is among a number of teams that have already expressed interest in center Steven Stamkos, should the Lightning captain not re-sign with Tampa Bay.
Kulikov is intrigued by who Buffalo might add.
“The more better players we’re going to bring into the organization, the more successful we’re going to be, and the faster we’re going to be successful,” Kulikov said.
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