It hasn’t quite worked out. Kulikov has played in just 31 games this year, missing time with a lower-back injury suffered in the first preseason game that has also caused running pain down his legs for much of the season.
Kulikov has logged just two points and now seems like an afterthought in Buffalo’s future plans rather than a building block. Indeed, there have been growing rumblings that Kulikov could be on the block as we approach the trade deadline.
Like Michael Stone, Kulikov is a bit more intriguing than some of the other journeyman rentals New York might be eyeing. Kulikov is a free agent this summer, but at just 26, he’s someone the Blueshirts might hope to re-sign. He has a lot of appealing attributes as a big man that can skate, a heavy hitter that’s very willing to sacrifice his body and a lefty that has the ability to play both sides.
For some more background on Kulikov, I sent a few questions to JC Smith of Litter Box Cats, who knows Kulikov very well from his years with the Panthers:
Q: Injuries have really hindered Kulikov in Buffalo and he’s had a tough time carving out a role. Where did he leave off in Florida before the trade?
A: Where Kulikov was at the end of last season makes his injuries this season an even bigger downer. For so many years, Panther fans had been waiting for Kulikov to emerge as a big-time player. I had often referred to Kuli as a “bonehead” because he made so many terrible decisions at key moments that cost the team. And yet, down the stretch last season and into the playoff series with the Islanders, he really settled down.
Kulikov averaged 25:09 during the series and had four points in six games (one goal, three assists). Take note that he only averaged 21 minutes per night during the regular season. I did not think there was any way the rumors of a trade involving Kulikov could have been true, as Gerard Gallant and his coaching staff were showing more and more confidence in Kulikov, and Kulikov was repaying the coaches with solid play with a variety of partners. If anything, the Panthers likely traded him at the second-highest point of his value (his first several seasons were likely the high point).
Q: Kulikov posted a ton of points in junior and started off his career as a regular offensive contributor, but that seems that has fallen off. What’s your take on that?
A: That remains the most difficult question to answer. I had hoped to see if there was more to that part of his game in a different system, though its hard to say Buffalo allows him to showcase much more than the Panthers had. A few things that may have had a negative impact on Kuli’s offensive output were: terrible Panther teams with lineups that were as bad as anything the NHL has ever seen (Kamil Kreps, anyone?); different coaches with different systems throughout his career; only two seasons where he saw solid offensive zone start rates; and finally, usage. That last one is something to key on. Kulikov’s Corsi and Fenwick numbers were not the best for the Panthers in 2015-16, but he was also being used more in the defensive zone, often with rookie Alex Petrovic as a partner. Remember that last season the Panthers were giving all of their offensive opportunities on the back-end to the tandem of Brian Campbell and Aaron Ekblad, meaning Kuli and company were tasked more with difficult defensive match-ups. Kulikov also saw very little power play usage last season – though he did manage six power play assists.
Q: What are Kulikov’s strengths and weaknesses? How would you describe his career arc right now?
A: Kuli has revealed his talents. He is a strong, big, mobile defenseman best geared for a speedy defensive game. He does not wait to attack and has a penchant for trying to separate players from the puck at the blueline, which will occasionally lead to a classic meltdown. But Kulikov is excellent at forcing entries wide and sticking with offensive players into the corners. He is strong enough to play well in front of his own net. At times he pursues too much and can get out of position, but he slowed that trend down the stretch last season. He should provide very solid defense, even against the game’s faster players. He is an excellent puck carrier that has no trouble fighting through checks, uses his size well, and has solid speed. But his vision with the puck has never been great. Kulikov’s shot is very hard but exceptionally inaccurate and he has shown an inability to run a power play.
I have made some comments this season that the Panthers made a mistake getting rid of both Kulikov and Erik Gudbranson. While I liked Gudbranson a great deal, I have stated on multiple occasions that I think Kulikov may have been the bigger loss. His size and skating ability let Kuli play against big, fast teams and crush them off cycle-play, and the Panthers do not have that ability now (notice the Kings wrecked the Cats around their own net, while the Panthers had little trouble with a smaller Nashville team). I wish the injuries had not curtailed Kuli, because I really think he had figured this game out, and where his place in it is. If his injuries are not of the bothersome long-term variety, I think his arc is stronger than ever. He has all the ability and brains to play a second- or third-pair role very well.
Andy Boron of Die By the Blade also chimed in from the Sabres POV:
“I hate to say it, but Kulikov has been a pretty big disappointment..Of course, like many Sabres players, the big question is: Did Kulikov’s game take a step back, or is his lack of production the result of playing for one of the NHL’s worst teams?
“I think Kulikov has the talent to contribute to a playoff team as a back-end defenseman. He’s a decent skater, he’s physical, has a good outlet pass, and can contribute a bit on your power play, though he’s not a PP specialist. The biggest problem with his time in Buffalo, injuries aside, is that he just hasn’t produced offensively at all. For a guy who’s making $4.5 million this year, one goal and one assist through 31 games just isn’t gonna cut it. He also finds himself out of position from time to time thanks to going for that big hit or making the wrong decision in his own zone. I think the Sabres would be smart to trade Kuli, because I doubt they want him back next year at that cap number after what he’s done here. I think a fresh start could do him good, but that tailbone injury remains a concern for any team willing to roll the dice.”