BUFFALO – The Buffalo Sabres walked away with an impact Russian defenseman early in the NHL draft after all. No, it wasn't Mikhail Sergachev, as they passed on him for a forward in Alex Nylander during Friday's first round at No. 8 overall. Instead, GM Tim Murray upgraded his blueline Saturday morning by acquiring veteran Dmitry Kullikov and pick No. 33 (Rasmus Asplund) in Saturday's draft from the Florida Panthers for D-man Mark Pysyk, picks No. 38 and No. 89.
Some trades are easier to understand than others, and this deal, first reported by TSN's Bob McKenzie, makes perfect sense for the Sabres. They were very clearly in the market for a veteran top-four blueliner, commonly linked to the Anaheim Ducks' Cam Fowler. Kulikov, a tenacious left-handed shooter who blocks shots with aplomb, shores up Murray's blueline. Rasmus Ristolainen remains the cornerstone piece, and Kulkov, Cody Franson, Zach Bogosian and Josh Gorges provide depth. It wouldn't be a surprise to see Kulikov play on the top pairing with right-shooting Ristolainen.
Just as we've seen with the Leafs landing Frederik Andersen and the Coyotes signing Alex Goligoski, the Sabres send a message here they're ready to start competing as a playoff hopeful. They've amassed a nice pile of promising young scorers in Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart and Nylander. They have their No. 1 stud blueliner in Ristolainen. Why not pick up an impact veteran in Kulikov, still young at 25, and start trying to push for a post-season berth in the weak Atlantic Division?
The Panthers, having just signed Keith Yandle to a massive seven-year contract with a $6.35-milloin cap hit, shed Kulikov's $4.5-million AAV. Kulikov is signed through the end of 2016-17. The question now is whether the Panthers use the freed-up money to re-sign UFA Brian Campbell or just want financial breathing room. Even with Yandle in town, the Cats have traded Erik Gudbranson and Kulikov this off-season, so they're either planning to retain Campbell or they're extremely confident that Canada's World Championship standout, Michael Matheson, can step into a high-leverage role this coming season.
The latter is a fair bet. Campbell returning? Hard to say. But with Aaron Ekblad's entry-level deal ending after this season, the Panthers are smart to leave a lot of room. His contract should be a max-term deal with a cap hit well north of $7 million.
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin