Brett Kulak’s 2018-19 season started in the AHL with the Laval Rocket. With Matt Taormina and Rinat Valiev going to the Calgary Flames for his services, the Kulak trade looked like an immediate win for the Montreal Canadiens as they landed the player with the highest overall ceiling. By the end of the season that was more than confirmed. Valiev finished with 21 points in 57 games for the Stockton Heat, while Taormina had just seven assists in 31 games in the AHL.
Kulak put up 11 points in 19 games for Laval before getting called up to Montreal, where he produced 17 points in 57 NHL games while playing significant minutes within the Canadiens’ top four. That is about as lopsided a victory as you can get for a trade that involved all AHL players in the pre-season, and it may have worked out long-term in Montreal’s favour as well.
While the basic stats look great, looking deeper into Kulak’s advanced metrics shows that he was quietly one of the best options on defence for Montreal this year. His three most common defence partners were Shea Weber, Jeff Petry and Jordie Benn, and all three players saw their underlying numbers improve while Kulak played with them.
For some it was a small boost, but for others it was much more noticeable. Kulak spent 164 minutes alongside Weber at even strength this year, and together the duo had a Corsi-for percentage (CF%) of 58.8%, which is outstanding. In his time away from Kulak, Weber had a 52.3 CF%, which is good, but not nearly at the level he hit with Kulak.
With Benn, the difference is smaller — 55.0% with, and 53.1% without — but it is an improvement.
Kulak ended the year with Petry, who also had a better CF% (57.2) with Kulak than without (55.2). That pairing was a shot-generating machine, with a 77.9 shot attempts per 60 minutes; a massive leap ahead of what either defender did while playing apart.
Regardless of who Kulak played with, they benefited in some form or another, which is an impressive feat. This alone should factor in heavily when negotiating his next contract this summer.
The Canadiens were a top-four team in terms of even-strength possession and expected-goals-for percentage. The Canadiens were a good team overall, and Kulak just added to that. The team was not sunk without him (they might have taken a small hit in possession), and overall at even strength they were a well-oiled machine.
Where Kulak’s camp can counter that point is in his defensive play. With him on the ice, the Canadiens gave up far fewer scoring chances, and generally allowed little for opposing teams to look at.
Montreal performed well without Kulak’s presence on the ice, but even better with him in. Thanks to the heatmaps above from HockeyViz.com we can see just how much of an impact he had.
Evolving-Hockey projects his new contract at around $3.7 million, and that would seem perfectly reasonable if not for the fact he was making just $900,000 this past year. A raise of that level seems unlikely based on Marc Bergevin’s previous signings, but that doesn’t mean Kulak won’t get a well-deserved raise.
Based on the new upper limit of the cap, the Canadiens enter the summer with just over $13.5 million in space to re-sign their restricted free agents, more than enough to cover a raise for Kulak. With a figure somewhere between the ones listed above, that would be a bit of a steal for someone playing in your top four regularly.
The term is another matter. It is around six years in that same estimation mentioned earlier. With Alexander Romanov waiting in the wings, and plenty of left-side options in the upcoming NHL Draft, it may be wise to not commit to a long-term deal at this stage. At the same time, being able to lock up a player of Kulak’s quality for multiple years is not a bad idea. So the number may not be six years, but a three- to four-year contract seems plausible and fits the timeline for players joining the organization in the next few seasons.
Bergevin should be working hard to extend Kulak. While Montreal was a very good team all year, Kulak brought great quality at a cheap price and improved the team further. He just needs to make sure he is not overpaying for less than one solid NHL season. If Kulak comes in on another affordable deal and continues to shine, then Montreal will have addressed one of their greatest issues, with the flexibility to move on to the others.