There are many things that are wrong with the Sabres, but the fact that Kulikov hasn't been able to perform has stuck out. He has been one of the most inconsistent players on the entire team, and the fact that Mark Pysyk (who was traded for Kulikov over the summer) has been able to play rather well for the Florida Panthers makes it worse. Kulikov has one year left on his contract that has a cap hit of $4.3 million, and he has not shown that he is worth it. As of tonight, Kulikov has one point and it's an assist. He has not scored a goal since he joined the Buffalo Sabres. He also has a -10 rating and 14 penalty minutes.
Even though the Sabres are a bottom feeder right now, Kulikov's problems stick out.
Kulikov not performing to expectations
Over the summer, the Sabres acquired Kulikov, and a second round pick in the 2016 NHL draft, in exchange for defenseman Mark Pysyk and two second round picks. Kulikov came with the expectation of being a first line defenseman to play with Rasmus Ristolainen (Risto) because the Sabres needed a left-handed shooter who could play with Risto. But, he never did. Now, that may fall back on Dan Bylsma, but after Kulikov played through an entire camp Bylsma decided that Kulikov should play on the last line with Cody Franson. At times, Kulikov has looked out of sync and slow, and at other times he has looked outstanding and played great defense. He has been one of the most inconsistent Sabres skaters, and to me has made, to be blunt, Tim Murray looks dumb.
The Sabres were expected to improve and be a dark horse to make the playoffs, but after dropping very pivotal games to the Boston Bruins they are now in second-last place in the Eastern Conference. Kulikov got injured on November 9 with a back injury, and he didn't return until December 9. After taking a month off to recover, Kulikov's back issue flared up again after playing in only six games, and he has now been out since December 27. With Kulikov being out from November 9 to December 9, the Sabres lost eight games and won five games, gaining 11 points over that stretch. With Kulikov being out since December 27, the Sabres have lost three games, won one, and gained three points.
Without Kulikov in the lineup, the Sabres have looked better defensively, and have been able to get wins against some very good teams like the New York Rangers, the Pittsburgh Penguins, and the Ottawa Senators. Kulikov has obviously been injury prone this year which gives him some slack due to the fact that he has only played in 20 games for the Sabres, but his stats don't help his case. Kulikov's stats on the year are a rating of -10, one assist, no goals, and fourteen penalty minutes. In Kulikov's seven seasons played with the Florida Panthers, he averaged around 20 points per season, and in some of those seasons he didn't even play a full 82 games but was still able to attain 20 points or better.
It's very obvious that something isn't working when it comes to Kulikov, and the Sabres need to figure out what that is.
What's going wrong for Kulikov so far?
Kulikov came to Buffalo with the expectation of playing with top defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen, but after trying to prove himself in training camp, he didn't land that spot. Instead of playing with Risto, Sabres head coach Dan Bylsma started Kulikov on the last line with Cody Franson. Throughout the season, Kulikov has moved up, but only as far as the second line, and even when Kulikov played with Zach Bogosian on the second line, he still wasn't able to produce.
Kulikov doesn't play on the penalty kill, or the powerplay, or in 3-on-3 overtime situations due to the fact that he hasn't shown that he is able to produce. Now, Bylsma hasn't really given Kulikov the chance, but can you blame him when Kulikov has only been able to play 20 games due to a back issue, and over those twenty games, produce just one assist. Maybe Kulikov hasn't been able to produce because of the back issues or because he hasn't been given a chance to show what he can do, but when he plays he is so inconsistent. There are times where it looks like Kulikov doesn't even want to be on the ice, and there are other times where he looks great. Blame it on what you want, but maybe Kulikov isn't as good as we all want to think he is.
How can Kulikov and the Sabres improve?
If Kulikov doesn't improve his overall play when he comes back from injury then the best thing for Sabres general manager Tim Murray to do is to swallow his pride and trade away Kulikov. Murray is usually a very straight shooter when it comes to the Sabres organization, but I never really felt like he was able to admit that he was wrong. This is one of those instances where he must do that, and trade away Kulikov for what he is worth on the trading market. The Sabres have shown that they have guys like Tyler Fedun (Fey-Doon), or Brandon Guhle (Goo-lee), or Cody Franson who can step up and fill his role. Now, this may not lead to the Sabres winning more games, but it will improve the Sabres in the long run by allowing team chemistry to grow, and by allowing them to build a cohesive locker room.
If the Sabres don't trade Kulikov then he has to start playing better. He has to become more consistent, and he has to start getting pucks to the net to show that he can play on those specialty lines like the penalty kill and the powerplay. He has to show to the Sabres, or to another franchise, that he can play, and is worth being paid. Kulikov has to improve his defensive game by hitting more, and just playing with a general consistency so that he can be relied upon night in and night out.
Will the Buffalo Sabres make the playoffs?
The chances of the Buffalo Sabres making the playoffs are slim. They keep sliding every single time they seem to have put together a run, and they always react the same way by saying "we have to be better." The best sight to see was when the franchise centerpiece Jack Eichel threw a tantrum after the loss to the Boston Bruins on December 31, by throwing his equipment into his duffel bag, saying some choice four letter words then storming off, and not speaking with the media. Then, when Eichel met with the media the next day after the incident he was asked what needed to be better, and he responded by saying "everything" and that "as a whole team, everyone needs to look in the mirror and we all need to get better," per Buffalo News. Eichel then went out the next game against the New York Rangers and scored two clutch third-period goals to win the Sabres the game 4-3, essentially backing up his words.
This fire from Eichel is what the Sabres need to themselves. They need to realize that unless serious changes happen to their attitudes, and the way that they all play, then they are out of the playoffs. As of right now, if the Sabres want to make it into the playoffs they have to start running the table and winning games by putting some good long streaks together. The Sabres need Kulikov, and others, to step up and start helping them win games.
What do you think of Dmitry Kulikov's performance so far this season? Tell us down in the comments below.