While the trade for Brett Kulak seemed to come out of nowhere, it isn’t some last second throwaway deal between the Flames and Canadiens. For Montreal, there are plenty of benefits besides acquiring the best overall piece in the trade, and it’s worth looking into the impact this deal has at the NHL and AHL levels.
At its most basic, this trade saw Montreal send Rinat Valiev and Matt Taormina to the Calgary Flames for Brett Kulak. Valiev came over last year in the Tomas Plekanec trade, and Taormina was Marc Bergevin’s crown jewel of an AHL signing in the previous summer.
Valiev had a tough road to try and make the NHL with a large list of established veterans in from him, and plenty of prospects breathing down his neck. He was likely to be a solid cornerstone in the AHL for Joël Bouchard, but may get a better NHL look in Calgary now.
The loss of Matt Taormina stings a lot more at the AHL level for the Laval Rocket however, as he was not only one of the best point producers on the Rocket last year, but he was among the best in the entire league at piling up assists, even as a defender. His 48 assists last year ranked him third overall in the AHL, and his 52 points ranked him as the third highest defender in points. His presence on the power play was crucial for it’s success, Taormina did well distributing the puck around the zone, and by his standards had a down year in terms of goal scoring. His absence now will force someone on the roster to step up in his place, at both even strength, and on the man advantage for the Rocket.
While losing Taormina is a blow to the Rocket, and losing Valiev took out a ready-made call up option, it opens up several options. The first being that two more contract spaces were freed up, and with Simon Despres and Cale Fleury still lingering around the organization there could be new deals coming shortly. Adding Despres to the AHL roster isn’t a terrible idea given his experience, and Fleury has matured his game exponentially since being drafted in 2017. Adding Fleury to the Rocket roster on an entry level deal fits in with the current mindset of the Canadiens organization, where youth is becoming the focus, and prospects are being given every chance to prove they deserve their lineup spots.
While Kulak himself said he’s going to start the year with Laval, his time with the Flames suggests that he may not be there long, and could likely steal a spot on the NHL roster if he plays well. In Calgary he was given the unsavoury task of playing on a pairing with Michael Stone, and despite carrying the pair to decent numbers in terms of possession, Kulak thrived away from Stone.
If we look at their individual metrics, it’s plain to see who the workhorse was on their pairing, and that bodes well for the Canadiens.
While he didn’t play the toughest competition every night, Kulak was also playing with the bottom of the Flames lineup, laden with names like Curtis Lazar, Troy Brouwer, and Garnet Hathaway. When playing away from Stone, there is a noticeable uptick in all of his overall numbers as well. According to Natural Stat Trick, when paired with Stone, Kulak had a 51.17% Corsi For, but when apart Kulak jumped up to a 55.78% CF while Stone plummeted to a 47.46% CF without Kulak.
That’s not a small jump, that’s indicating that Kulak was floating his partner, something he did all season. Yet he still produced admirable shot metrics, and for a bottom pairing defender, that’s a good thing. It might be indicative that he was capable of a more expanded role, but in Calgary last year their top four was locked fairly well in place. Mark Giordano, Dougie Hamilton, T.J. Brodie and Travis Hamonic had a stranglehold on their spots, which relegated Kulak down the lineup by default.
He isn’t the flashiest player on the ice, but he’s among the many quietly effective players at limiting shots from his side of the ice.
With Kulak on the left side the slot and face off areas see less scoring chances by opposing teams, and that’s an area where the Canadiens (and Rocket) struggled mightily last year. He’s not going to magically fix things, that only comes with good coaching, and maybe an upgrade on the right side of the defence as well, but he’s a positive step in the right direction.
This isn’t to say Kulak is going to immediately take the Canadiens by storm, but he is an immediate upgrade on Rinat Valiev in terms of NHL-readiness, and can make that jump a lot sooner. He’ll be a heavily leaned on piece in Laval for the time being, and while he can’t fully replace Taormina’s production he should do well as a top defender in the mean time.
This trade is a classic Marc Bergevin move. He’s getting a low risk, moderate reward player back, while clearing space for more moves in the near future. It’s a solid deal for Montreal as they gain the best player in the deal, and created a spot for a prospect like Cale Fleury.