For the past couple of years, Brett Kulak has shown flashes of being an impact player but hasn’t been able to stay in the lineup with regularity let alone lock down a top-four spot. With his place on the depth chart the same as it was a year ago, is it time for the Habs to move him?
Kulak’s ardent defenders are quick to point out the positive possession stats and rightfully so as they’re quite good. And others who aren’t so numbers-based would point out the fact that he’s a good puck-mover and skater on a back end that doesn’t have a lot of good puck-movers and skaters. All of these are true and frankly, plainly obvious to the coaching staff as well.
And still, with all of that going for him, he was out of the lineup when it counted most in the playoffs and the coaching staff had so much confidence in him that they felt the need to acquire Jon Merrill and Erik Gustafsson in order to squarely secure Kulak to his spot in the press box. Both of those players had some utility but that was about as strong of a vote of non-confidence as you’re going to get when you read between the lines.
Clearly, they have their reservations about Kulak’s defensive ability and while he has those elements that, in theory, should lead to some production, that hasn’t really been the case. If you’re thinking to yourself that this sounds a lot like Victor Mete, you’re not the only one. Aside from the age difference, the situations are pretty similar.
Let’s look ahead to next season. Kulak is a left-shot defender and remains behind Joel Edmundson, Ben Chiarot, and Alexander Romanov on the depth chart. On the right side, he’s behind Jeff Petry and David Savard so there is a possibility for him to be on the third pairing but that’s on his off side, the one where he spent some time last season when the team decided he wasn’t good enough. Chris Wideman is in the mix there as well.
From a long-term perspective, it’s not as if Kulak has a future with the team either. Yes, Chiarot will be unrestricted next summer but the hope is that Romanov will be ready for a top-four role by then with one of their many, many prospects (Mattias Norlinder, Kaiden Guhle, or Jordan Harris, in particular) ideally filling the third spot on a team-friendly entry-level deal. At this point, it seems safe to say that Kulak won’t be with the Habs this time next summer.
On the surface, it seems like a decent idea to try to trade him but even that isn’t necessarily a good option either. 31 other teams around the league just saw the Canadiens sit Kulak for most of the playoffs which doesn’t exactly help his trade value. And while it’s true that he’s on an expiring contract, his cap hit of $1.85M is on the high side for someone that can’t crack the lineup on a regular basis. With a lot of teams really close to the cap ceiling, the list of teams that would want Kulak is probably quite low. Seattle, a team that has invested heavily in analytics and has ample cap space, opted to not pick Kulak in expansion, instead opting for Cale Fleury who is even less proven in the NHL.
Montreal has a few options with Kulak but none of them are particularly appealing. They can try him again on his off-side on the third pairing and hope for better results this time around. They can keep him as the reserve left-shot defender. Or, they can trade him for whatever nominal return they could get for him which, at this point, probably isn’t much more than a late-round pick but they would free up a bit of short-term cap space if they were trying to add another impact piece between that and what’s left of Shea Weber’s LTIR room (Paul Byron’s is largely irrelevant since he’ll be back midseason).
At this point, I’d hazard a guess that GM Marc Bergevin opts to hold onto Kulak as we know how important he feels having defensive depth is. Yes, him being in the press box or on his off-side where he didn’t play well last season isn’t ideal but with what’s left in free agency, it’s not as if there are better options sitting out there. In the meantime, his value will likely continue to dwindle but since he’s probably heading out the door anyway next summer for nothing but freed up cap space, that’s not a huge concern.
Over his parts of three seasons with Montreal, Kulak has certainly shown some flashes of upside. However, I think at this point, the focus needs to shift to what he is for this team and not what the underlying numbers suggest he could become at the age of 27. He’s a depth piece and at least on this team, that’s all he’s going to be. Set your expectations accordingly.