As soon as the NHL Draft ended Saturday, arena workers stormed the First Niagara Center floor. The dismantling was swift and efficient as tables, logos and signs disappeared.
Meanwhile, up in the Buffalo Sabres’ offices, they were celebrating for the opposite reason. As others were tearing down, they continued to build up.
Buffalo acquired a long-desired defenseman, added skilled prospects and turned its attention toward free agency as the happy host of a successful selection show.
“There’s excitement about building this team and where we’ve gone and what we’re doing,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “It gets me excited about what kind of team we can be next year.”
After five long seasons, the Sabres hope the addition of Dmitry Kulikov and others helps them become the type of team that starts with a P.
“He gives us a chance just to keep getting better and make that playoff push that we talk about now,” General Manager Tim Murray said.
The draft is usually an event filled with optimism, and that was certainly true in Buffalo. The Sabres added talented forward Alex Nylander in the first round Friday, then started Day Two with a trade that netted another skilled Swede plus a veteran defenseman. Murray acquired Kulikov and the No. 33 pick, used on center Rasmus Asplund, from Florida in exchange for Mark Pysyk and the 38th and 89th selections.
Kulikov is a 25-year-old left-handed defenseman who already has played seven seasons in the NHL. He will represent Russia this fall in the World Cup of Hockey. He has one year left on a contract that pays $4.33 million, and he’ll be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the deal.
Murray has been interested in Kulikov since he scouted in Ottawa. The Sabres and their scouts focused on the 6-foot-1, 204-pound defenseman late in the season and during the playoffs. Clearly, the Sabres like what they saw. They think he has the potential to play with Rasmus Ristolainen on Buffalo’s top pairing.
“I don’t know if he’s going to play with Ristolainen – that’s the coach’s job to put the lines together – but we certainly know that he can,” Murray said. “He’s a good fit for us.”
The swap wasn’t a steal. Pysyk has shown signs of becoming a reliable NHL defenseman during his four seasons in Buffalo and Rochester. Some of his possession numbers top Kulikov’s stats, but Buffalo really wanted a left-handed shot to counter the abundance of righties in the organization.
“You can’t give away a bad player to get a good player,” Murray said. “You have to trade away a good player. Mark is a very good player. Mark is kind of an analytics darling, and we know that.”
The players’ offensive stats were similar last season - Kulikov had one goal and 17 points in 74 games, while Pysyk had one goal and 11 points in 55 games – but the Russian is more physical.
“He brings an edge,” Murray said. “He’s not going to be a guy that players are sitting on the bench afraid to go play against, but you have to keep your head up when he’s on the ice. He’ll hit you. He’ll submarine you. He’ll make you pay the price if you have your head down.
“He makes a great first pass. ... I certainly like guys that can make a tape-to-tape pass. With our forwards, if you can make a tape-to-tape pass, good things are going to happen in transition with the skill and speed that we already have here.”
The Sabres made the trade in part to get more skill and speed. They had Asplund rated as a first-round selection, and they didn’t think he’d last until the eighth pick of Round Two. So they tossed in their second-round pick and the last of three third-rounders to move up five spots.
“That’s great that they really believe in me and really want me to get here,” said Asplund, rated as the No. 4 European skater by NHL Central Scouting. “I think I’m a strong-skating, two-way center that sees the ice very well and really makes the guys that I play with better.”
One of those guys was Nylander. They were linemates in the world junior tournament and combined for seven goals and 14 points in seven games.
“That’s one of the guys I’ve had the best chemistry with in my whole career,” Asplund said. “He’s the difference between winning and losing. He’s an amazing player.”
The Swedish duo tops the list of 10 picks made by the Sabres, who entered the week with 12 selections. They sent one to Nashville in exchange for the rights to Jimmy Vesey and traded the other to the Panthers. With the draft of prospects complete, the Sabres will turn their attention to veterans.
The interview period is open for unrestricted free agents, and Murray plans to call the best ones. That, of course, includes Tampa Bay center Steven Stamkos. Murray has checked a left-handed defenseman off his list of desires, and game-changers are next in his sights.
“I have talked to one or two agents about one or two guys,” the GM said. “We’re going to tweak our blueprint and then get at it again.”