BUFFALO – These days, Sabres defenseman Dmitry Kulikov, a young veteran at just 26 years old, said he feels like an old man when he wakes up.
A lower-back bruise has been dogging the Russian for four months, forcing him out of the lineup three times and costing him 26 games.
Kulikov has dealt with the pain through a daily treatment regimen, and Thursday’s 2-1 overtime loss against New York Rangers was his fourth straight appearance.
The injury, Kulikov said, is “kind of worse in the mornings.”
“For old people, you get out of bed, you’re kind of stiff,” he said Thursday morning inside KeyBank Center. “So it’s just a little stiffer for me, I would say, when I get out of bed nowadays. I need to make sure I do stuff to have myself ready for the game.”
Kulikov, who was knocked into an open bench door Sept. 30, his preseason debut, said he has never dealt with anything so difficult in his eight-year career.
“I never had to deal with a back injury before,” Kulikov said. “The frustrating part is the recovery takes a long time. You’re not really able to do anything in the gym to keep yourself strong, so when you do come back, it takes you longer to get your strength back and … conditioning.”
The Sabres acquired Kulikov from Florida on June 25 to be top defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen’s regular partner. But the former first-round pick, an upcoming unrestricted free agent, has been limited to 24 games.
Kulikov missed opening night, sat out 13 times in November and early December and most recently missed another 12 games.
“Coming back and starting playing again and having to go back on the injured reserve, I think it’s hard mentally,” Kulikov said. “Right now, I’m just trying to do everything I can to not have this happen again, because I think it’s the hardest thing for an athlete to come back playing and having the same injury again.”
Given Kulikov can leave for nothing following the season, the Sabres could deal him before the March 1 trade deadline.
Still, the Sabres, who dished defenseman Mark Pysyk and exchanged picks for Kulikov, have finally started seeing some return. In his first three games back, Kulikov skated big minutes – 24:11, 25:32 and 22:47 – beside Ristolainen. He scored his first goal late in Tuesday’s 5-2 loss in Montreal. Overall, he has two points and a minus-8 rating.
“At that point in the game it didn’t matter,” Kulikov said about his goal. “I wish it had happened in a different kind of game. But now that I look at it, it’s good to get one and get the zero out of the stats.”
Kulikov stays off the ice the morning of a game. He said the team developed a plan and he receives treatment on his back and also does “some core work and activation.”
“It’s kind of more a maintenance prevention type thing by completely not taking the morning skate off,” he said.
But the pain hasn’t completely gone away.
“Hopefully, it’s going to go away at some point,” he said. “But I feel pretty good now, so I’m hoping it’s going to continue to get better.”
Nick Deslauriers, center? Believe it. For Thursday at least, the defenseman-turned-winger pivoted the Sabres’ fourth line.
To make room for Deslauriers, a healthy scratch for two games, center Cal O’Reilly was scratched and then waived. If O’Reilly clears – he has a one-way, $700,000 contract, so odds are he will – the veteran will likely be assigned back to the Rochester Americans.
Update: O’Reilly has cleared.
Deslauriers, Bylsma said, had never played center before. Still, he’s “comfortable down low, comfortable going back for pucks,” Bylsma said.
The Sabres have received an alarming lack of production from their fourth-line centers. O’Reilly had only one assist in 11 games, although he scored the shootout winner Nov. 19. Derek Grant contributed just three assists in 35 games before the Sabres lost him on waivers to Nashville.
Deslauriers, who had William Carrier and Tyler Ennis as his wingers, has zero points in 24 games. He played just two minutes, 46 seconds Thursday.
Wheatfield’s Adam Clendening was a healthy scratch for the Rangers. The defenseman has one goal and eight points in 18 games this season.