BUFFALO – In his first and probably only season here, defenseman Dmitry Kulikov has performed so poorly – the Russian has one goal, two points and a wretched minus-15 rating – the Sabres couldn’t even get a late-round pick for him before Wednesday’s trade deadline.
So for 19 more games, starting with tonight’s tilt against the Arizona Coyotes, the Sabres have Kulikov. Of course, that doesn’t mean coach Dan Bylsma will play him.
Kulikov, 26, could become a healthy scratch if he doesn’t improve soon.
“I had a discussion with him today post-deadline,” Bylsma said this morning inside KeyBank Center. “He’s a guy that needs to play better. … He potentially, yes, could come out of the lineup if he doesn’t find his game here in the last 19 games.”
Kulikov has battled a lower-back bruise since getting knocked into an open bench door in his preseason debut, an injury that has limited him to 37 games. The first half of the season, he said, “there was always something bugging me with that injury.”
Still, Kulikov has been healthy enough to stay in the lineup the last five weeks.
“It’s been difficult,” Kulikov said. “When you come to a new team, you want to make a good impression, you can’t really do it being in the medical room.”
Kulikov figured to draw interest before Wednesday’s deadline because he has a strong body of work. Not even a year ago, he was a stud during Florida’s opening-round playoff series.
That performance impressed the Sabres so much they acquired him June 25.
Did Kulikov expect to leave Wednesday?
“There wasn’t any talk between me and (general manager Tim Murray), so I wasn’t expecting anything,” he said. “I knew my name was out there, I was just watching it closely.”
Kulikov, however, said he doesn’t feel like he did in April. With so many games, he doesn’t have the proper recovery time for his injury.
“I’m working hard, trying to get my form back,” he said. “With that amount of games and that little rest time, you can maintain it, but you can’t get better at certain things. Just take it day-by-day and try to manage it.”
In other news, thanks to no activity Wednesday, there were some relieved players in the Buffalo dressing room this morning.
Captain Brian Gionta and defenseman Cody Franson, who both said they wanted to stay, got their wish.
“To not have it happen, I was very happy,” a smiling Franson said.
He added: “I had a good sleep last night. That was nice.”
Gionta, who could only be dealt to five teams, said Murray called him Wednesday.
“I’m thankful for the open dialogue,” he said. “I thought we had a pretty good conversation.”
Check back later for more from the veterans.
In other news, Sabres goalie Robin Lehner will start tonight, his 45th nod this season. The rest of the lineup will be announced later, Bylsma said.
The Sabres used these new lines this morning from left to right:
– Tyler Ennis, Ryan O’Reilly, Kyle Okposo
– Marcus Foligno, Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart
– Evander Kane, Zemgus Girgensons, Brian Gionta
– Matt Moulson, Evan Rodrigues, Justin Bailey
Ennis, who has only one assist in the last seven games, earned a promotion from the fourth line up to the top trio.
“You’re seeing more from Tyler that you need to see,” Bylsma said.
The Sabres, losers of four straight games, fell to hapless Arizona 3-2 on Sunday, imploding late and allowing three third-period goals. The Sabres also lost 5-4 in overtime to Nashville on Tuesday, blowing another two-goal third-period lead.
“The last two big games have been pretty painful, and they’ve been painful at the end,” Bylsma said.
He added: “We need to play better defense. We need to be committed to play on the right side of the puck and playing the right way to close out hockey games, and that’s what I need from everybody – Ryan O’Reilly and Kyle and Jack.”