In the middle of Game 4, I tweeted out that, since the start of the play-in series, no Montreal Canadiens player has impressed me more than Bett Kulak. That might have been a slight exaggeration considering the performances of Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi, but it was hard to not get carried away by the play of the defenceman.
According to many metrics, Kulak has been Jeff Petry’s most effective partner since his arrival with the team, but it always felt like the more experienced blue-liner was carrying more of the load on that pairing. In these past few weeks, however, I think Kulak has started to pull a much greater portion of the load.
Kulak defends relatively well, creates offence, and has been nothing short of dominant in transition. Moving the play up the ice in controlled ways has always been the main strength of the defenceman, but now he pushed it to the next level. Against the Philadelphia Flyers, just like versus the Pittsburgh Penguins, he has consistently transported his team past the forechecks and the neutral-zone traps.
Mikael Nahabedian’s tracked stats again prove extremely useful to evaluate transition impact. The tables illustrate Kulak’s breakout and break-in effectiveness.
In the ability to create controlled defensive-zone exits, Kulak rates about the same as his fellow defencemen. He has managed to pass or carry the puck across his blue-line around 46% of the time since the start of the play-in series. Petry leads the team with a mark of 53%. But the ex-Calgary Flames defenceman shines in the zone-entry category.
He has attempted to move the puck across the offensive blue line more than all of his counterparts, and did so successfully more often than all of them except Victor Mete. The one thing that separates the two players, however, is strength of opposition. Mete has sprinted up-ice to win access to the offensive zone often in these past weeks, pushing the Habs’ offence on many occasion, but generally facing the lower half of the opposing lineup, contrary to Kulak.
There’s something extra when it comes to him that isn’t measured directly in Mikael’s stats: the desire to go the extra mile in transition, a quality he shares with his partner. Kulak shows himself more willing to makes difficult plays, to absorb and evade pounding forechecks to find the sticks of teammates. As much as possible, he doesn’t defer to others. He doesn’t make the easy play that might free him of pressure but transfers the burden to a teammate. He makes the hard play to facilitate the ones for others after him.
Of course, as the numbers show, Kulak isn’t always successful in his attempts. He doesn’t possess the toolkit, the superior acceleration, agility, or handling ability that would allow him to continuously transform a dumped puck into threatening rushes. Kulak was a fourth-round prospect after all — one the Flames gave up for the cost for two career AHLers. Kulak’s skills, his mobility and hands, only rise to an NHL average level or slightly above that. But he still accomplishes a lot on the ice through his awareness, his timing, and his use of deception.
The first sequence in the video below might be one of my favorite breakout clip ever, simply because of how clean it is. The Flyers run a 2-1-2 split forecheck. You can read about it in Jack Han’s article here. In a few words, it means that the first two forwards pressure below the goal line from each side of the net. One of the ways to beat it is to make a quick pass in the middle of the ice while F3, the third forechecker, remains high in the zone — exactly what Kulak pulled off.
In all of the clips, Kulak shows the same great elements. He shoulder-checks to take a mental picture of the ice, keeps his feet moving to displace the forecheck, and uses a deceptive posture with the puck at his hip to prevent the forecheck from closing the passing lanes. If an option is open, Kulak hits it quickly. If there is nothing available at first look, the defenceman doesn’t get rid of the puck, he delays and attracts opponents to create space for teammates, spins away, and then passes the puck up-ice.
He also activates fiercely with his forwards in all breakouts where he is the weak-side defenceman, and that’s probably why his zone-entry score is so high. As soon as the Habs get control of the puck with a clear zone-exit route, he sprints up the ice. His movement helps the team outnumber the backcheck and pierce through the neutral-zone trap.
The defenceman is quite effective at acting as a forward to create plays once the rush enters the zone. More than once since the start of the playoffs, he has rushed the net for tip-in attempt, a role more often reserved for the attacking F1.
Kulak still has his moments where he is too aggressive in his pinches or doesn’t put his stick down at the right time to cut a play as he tunnel-visions on the puck. But those instances have been rarer since the start of the playoffs, which allowed his transition effectiveness to take the forefront.
In Game 6, it’s likely that the Flyers will come back to much more of a tight, shutdown type of game, like the one we saw in Games 3 and 4. As he is often the one unlocking the neutral zone at five-on-five with his partner, Kulak will continue to be a key piece for the Habs. It’s possible he even ends up becoming the difference-maker in the game.
No matter the outcome, the evolution of Kulak is encouraging. Not long ago, Montreal acquired a defenceman from another Western Canadian team for quite a low price. That defenceman only proved effective in stretches as he first settled into his new role with the Canadiens, but got better with each year that passed. Now, he is arguably the best defenceman on the team.
Some players do get better in their late 20s. It’s rare, but it can happen. Hopefully, we will see a Jeff Petry-like progression with Kulak, as well.