Dmitry Kulikov says it took him some time to adjust to playing for the Buffalo Sabres.
Moving to a new town and playing for a new team is hard enough.
When you’re battling an injury suffered at the onset of a new season, well, that makes thinks all the tougher.
“It takes while to learn new systems, new teammates,” Kulikov said. “I feel like it’s all getting to the point where I feel comfortable now. I’m playing the way I want to play, not limited to the injury.”
Kulikov grew up with the Florida Panthers, drafted in 2009 as a teenager from Russia.
After escaping his Russian contract during his first training camp with the Panthers, he grew into a strong defenseman, playing in 460 games for Florida over the course of seven seasons in South Florida.
Last June, however, the Panthers swung a deal with the Sabres sending Kulikov to Buffalo in exchange for Mark Pysyk.
Kulikov faced the Panthers for the first time in October when Florida visited Buffalo; on Tuesday night, Kulikov will play his first game at BB&T Center as a visitor as the Sabres visit the Panthers (7:30 p.m., FSFL).
“The rink is the same, but the entrance now is a little different,” Kulikov said from the visitors’ locker room after the morning skate.
“It’s not that big of a deal now, but it will probably be a little emotional when I get out on the ice for warmups, see all the fans. I don’t think it will be weird playing against them, we played them earlier in the season and half the team is different now. Just playing in this building will be fun but somewhat emotional.”
Tom Rowe, the Panthers general manager and interim head coach, said Florida had been trying to acquire Pysyk for some time as the Panthers not only liked his skillset and ability to move the puck, but also desired his contractual situation.
Kulikov, 26, is on the final season of a three-year deal he signed with the Panthers in 2014 — meaning he can be a free agent once this season is up.
Pysyk makes about a quarter of what Kulikov does and is under team control for the next few seasons.
While Pysyk has played in all 32 games for the Panthers this season, Kulikov has been limited to 16 games after being hurt in the first game of the preseason.
“We didn’t want to give up Kuli but we knew it was nire of a salary cap move at the time and we had targeted Pysyk for quite a while, liked him a lot,” Rowe said.
“We miss Kuli,, he’s a big, strong guy who can skate; but we had to make some tough decisions over the summer.”
Said Pysyk: “I saw something coming, just didn’t know it would be me [traded]. It’s worked out for me so far, I have enjoyed it here.”
While Kulikov has been in the visitors’ side of the building before for photo shoots and such while with the Panthers, playing as a visitor will be different he said.
In Florida’s previous home game on Dec. 10 against Vancouver, the Panthers feted former defenseman Erik Gudbranson with a tribute video thanking him for his time with the franchise.
Kulikov said he knew all about that video and joked he better get one as well.
“I was here longer,” he said with a smile.
Yes, the Panthers plan on giving Kulikov the video tribute as well.
“All of my adult life I have spent in South Florida,” Kulikov said. “It does feel like home to me.”
▪ It appears Jonathan Marchessault (groin) will play Tuesday night and rejoin Florida’s third line with Denis Malgin and Colton Sceviour.
Nick Bjugstad, who has been all over the Florida lineup since returning from wrist surgery last month, will likely be on the fourth line with Shawn Thornton and center Derek MacKenzie.
Roberto Luongo is back in net for the Panthers.
Tuesday: Sabres at Panthers
When/where: 7:30 p.m.; BB&T Center, Sunrise.
TV/radio: FSFL; WQAM 560, WMEN 640.
Series: Buffalo leads 47-38-4.
Scouting report: The Sabres have points in three consecutive games and wins in two. Former Florida defenseman Dmitry Kulikov makes his first appearance in Sunrise since being traded to Buffalo in July.