On day two of the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, the Buffalo Sabres made a long-awaited trade for a left shot defenseman. The Sabres sent defenseman Mark Pysyk to the Florida Panthers along with picks 38 and 89 in exchange for Dmitry Kulikov and pick number 33. The trade has been met with mixed reviews from fans, however it appears as though Buffalo got the better end of the deal.
This trade can be broken down into two separate moves in order to measure the assets being exchanged more simply. First, the draft picks involved: the Sabres essentially spent a third round pick to move up six spots in the second round to select Swedish Center Rasmus Asplund, a player many experts ranked as a mid-to-late first round talent. Asplund is a two-way forward with excellent puck moving skills and some grit. It is far too early to tell what he will amount to at the NHL level, but he was arguably the best remaining player in the draft.
The second half of the deal can be viewed as a straight swap between Kulikov and Pysyk. As it stands right now, GM Tim Murray came away with the best player in the deal, especially considering the team need. At age 25, Kulikov is a seven-year veteran known for his defensive responsibility and physical play, not to mention his ability to make clean outlet passes from his own zone. He spent most of last season in the Panthers top-four paired with Aaron Ekblad, and was widely regarded as their best defenseman in the playoffs.
While Kulikov will not wow fans with his scoring ability (17 points in 74 games last season), his value lies as a safeguard in his own end. He averaged over 21 minutes of ice time per game in 2015-’16. Kulikov’s jack-of-all-trades playing style caught Tim Murray’s attention.
“You watch Florida when they go on the PK; he was the first guy on the ice. When they needed a goal in the playoffs he was on the ice. When they needed to protect a lead late in the game he was on the ice. So we certainly liked what we saw.” – Tim Murray
An assertion can be made that Kulikov’s advanced statistics are not ideal in comparison to Pysyk’s, however, it must be noted that Kulikov played against opponent’s top scoring lines, while Pysyk often appeared as a third pairing defender against bottom six forwards.
Advanced metrics (i.e. Corsi rating, Fenwick, etc.) are really all Pysyk had going for him last season. While his possession numbers were excellent, there isn’t a facet of the game that he does particularly well. Pysyk lacks substantial offensive ability and plays with very little physicality. His tendency to play safe, intelligent hockey has made him an analytical darling, however there is simply nothing special about the way he plays the game.
It has been speculated that with the expansion draft taking place next off-season, Pysyk would have been the odd man out if the Sabres planned on protecting three defensemen. With Kulikov set to become a UFA after the upcoming season, there is not as much appeal for an expansion team to poach him from the roster (the expansion draft is set to take place prior to the commencement of free agency in 2017). As a UFA, the Sabres will have the ability to wait to extend Kulikov until after the expansion draft. Pysyk will be an RFA in 2017, so his rights could certainly be more appealing.
The main deciding factor in the deal was the glaring organizational need on the left side of the defense versus a surplus of both roster players and prospects on the right side. Pysyk would have been the Sabres’ third best current player on the right side behind Rasmus Ristolainen and Zach Bogosian. Kulikov instantly becomes the best option on the left, and it’s not even close.
The emergence of rookie Casey Nelson late in the season contributed to Pysyk’s expendability as well. Nelson offers an upgrade in offensive potential which the team currently lack on the back end (aside from Ristolainen). He will compete in camp to claim a spot on the third pairing.
Kulikov expressed excitement at the opportunity to join the Sabres organization along with an acknowledgement that there are facets of his game where he must improve.
“I haven’t been as productive as I wanted to be in the NHL and obviously, I want to grow in that part of the game. I’m just happy for a fresh start and happy for the opportunity in Buffalo.” – Dmitry Kulikov
We’re well into the rebuild and the Sabres must start making the playoffs. Tim Murray wants young, experienced, NHL-ready players. Kulikov fits that bill perfectly. It is entirely possible that Pysyk becomes the better player long term, however right now, the easy choice is Kulikov, especially given the current depth on the right side of the defense. At the end of the day, Murray came away with the best NHL ready player and the best prospect in the deal. For a team looking to make a big jump in the standings while continuing to develop an already rich prospect pool, this trade should be viewed as a victory.