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Sabres see big upside in new defenseman Kulikov

The Sabres learned a lot from Dmitry Kulikov’s play in the postseason. So did he.

He’s eager to bring the knowledge to Buffalo.

Kulikov, already regarded as a top-four defenseman, showed this spring he can handle an expanded role. He skated more than 25 minutes per night during Florida’s first-round playoff series and recorded one goal, four points and a plus-4 rating.

Buffalo will give him the opportunity to keep the success going.

“I was happy with the responsibility I was given in the playoffs,” Kulikov said Tuesday during a conference call. “I was happy they trusted me as a top-pair defenseman. I was happy with my performance.”

“What I learned about my game is that I think I had another level of compete in me,” he said.

The Buffalo brass viewed video of Kulikov and grew confident the 25-year-old was the right man to play important minutes alongside Rasmus Ristolainen or Zach Bogosian. They acquired Kulikov on Saturday in a trade that included Mark Pysyk and an exchange of draft picks.

“When they needed a goal in the playoffs, he was on the ice late in the game,” Sabres General Manager Tim Murray said. “When they needed to protect a lead late in the game, he was on the ice, so we certainly like what we saw. … He can play in all situations, and he’s competitive. He’s not going to be easy to play against.”

Kulikov, who will represent Russia in the World Cup of Hockey, is seemingly on the way up as an NHL defender. He set a career high with a plus-8 rating while facing quality competition. He spent nearly half of the season on the top pair with Aaron Ekblad, then teamed with the former Rookie of the Year to face the New York Islanders’ John Tavares for much of the playoffs.

“Top-four defenseman is very prestigious,” Kulikov said. “I’ve improved a lot in my own end. The statistics show the last two seasons were really strong for me. I felt like I really, really picked up my game at the end of this season and going into the playoffs.”

“I can be a shutdown guy, and I can be point productive,” he said.

The Sabres needed help in their own zone. They relied almost solely on Josh Gorges and Ristolainen against top lines and for defensive-zone faceoffs. The addition of Kulikov will spread out the stressful ice time and prevent players from being overworked physically and mentally.

“A left shot in the top four is a really big addition for our team,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “He’s a good skater, adds that to our team, but he plays with an edge. He’s got a high compete to his game, and you see that almost every time you watch him play.”

Kulikov has become more comfortable using his 6-foot-1, 204-pound frame. He grew up admiring Darius Kasparaitis, whose hits tiptoed the legality border. The seven-year veteran has enjoyed adding physicality.

He still has room to improve offensively. His career highs are eight goals and 24 assists, but he totaled 14 goals and 81 points in 76 games during his lone season of junior hockey.

“I was drafted as a two-way defenseman,” said the No. 14 overall pick by Florida in 2009. “I put up points in the juniors, but I haven’t been really as productive as I wanted to be in the NHL. Obviously, I want to grow in that part of the game. I want to be more offensive.”

A key part of the job description for Buffalo blue-liners will be to merely give the puck to the forwards. Jack Eichel, Ryan O’Reilly and Sam Reinhart should do the rest from there.

“Looking at Buffalo, playing against them, they have a really, really strong group of forwards that’s really hard to play against, and they have skill,” Kulikov said. “If I can help out the defensive corps in any way I can and get the puck up to the forwards’ hands, I think we’re going to have a very successful year.”

Kulikov is in the final season of a contract that pays $4.33 million annually. He never began extension talks with the Panthers, who told him they needed to clear cap space. Kulikov will be an unrestricted free agent next summer, but for now he’ll watch what the Sabres do with this crop of signees.

After addressing the need for a left-shot defenseman, Buffalo will focus on forwards. Center Steven Stamkos is the prime target, while the team will also talk with left wing Jimmy Vesey, the unsigned college star acquired earlier this month. The Sabres could use more talent in the top six to end a five-year playoff drought.

“The more, better players we’re going to bring into the organization, the more successful we’re going to be and the faster we’re going to be successful,” Kulikov said. “There’s nothing better than the playoffs. There’s nothing better than the feeling of stepping onto the ice at that time of year and playing for the Cup.”

email: jvogl@buffnews.com