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KULIKOV BELIEVES HE CAN PLAY SHUTDOWN ROLE FOR BUFFALO

by Jourdon LaBarber / Buffalo Sabres
(Photo Credit: Getty Images)



When they acquired Dmitry Kulikov over the weekend, members of the Sabres brass expressed confidence that he could play the role of a shutdown defenseman in Buffalo, perhaps even alongside Rasmus Ristolainen on the top pair.

Kulikov, after all, is coming off a season in which he averaged 21:02 of ice time for a Florida Panthers team that won the Atlantic Division and then averaged 25:09 with a plus-4 rating in six playoff games. Now, he's ready to do whatever's necessary to help his new team reach similar heights.

"I just want to help out in any way possible," Kulikov said during a conference call on Tuesday. "I mean, [to be a] top-four defenseman is very prestigious and I'm happy to be that guy and I'm happy to take on that responsibility. As I've proven in Florida I've played against top lines."

Kulikov wasn’t necessarily expecting to be involved in a trade when the NHL Draft began last weekend. Sure, he knew it was possible – the Panthers had just acquired Keith Yandle from New York to play the back end and Kulikov is set to become a free agent after this season. Still, he was comfortable.

Things changed. The Sabres had coveted a left-shot defenseman since the start of the offseason and decided Kulikov, 25, was their man. They acquired him and the No. 33 pick in the draft in exchange for Mark Pysyk and picks Nos. 38 and 89.

Was Kulikov surprised? A bit. Disappointed? Not at all.

As excited as he was about the future in Florida, Kulikov felt the same way after the Panthers cracked the postseason in 2011-12. He felt that was going to be the beginning of a run for the franchise, but they finished last in the Southeast Division the following year and then seventh in the Atlantic the year after.

What he learned then was that each year is a fresh start. This season, his fresh start will just happen to come with another franchise. After facing the Sabres and their young roster four times last season, he's excited about what's to come.

"I think it's an opportunity next year," he said. "Looking at Buffalo, playing against them, they have a really, really strong group of forwards that's really hard to play a against and they have a lot of skill so if I can help out the defensive corps in any way I can and get the puck up into the forwards' hands, I think we're going to have a very successful year."

It's the first trade of Kulikov's career; he was drafted by Florida in the first round in 2009 and began playing for the Panthers at 19. He admitted there's nervousness to join a new franchise with a new coach and a new set of teammates.

But with that comes excitement. The Sabres have said their goal is to make the postseason 2016-17, and Kulikov has a hunger to return following Florida's first-round exit in April.

"There's nothing better than the playoffs. There's nothing better than the feeling of stepping on the ice at that time of the year and playing for the cup," he said. "I think change is sometimes for the best.

"Maybe whatever happens happens for a reason. Maybe I'm meant to end up in Buffalo."

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