They’re a team short on reliable, minute-munching, puck-moving, left-shot defencemen, so locking one up for third-pairing money — one who played a top-four role for a big chunk of his 57 games since coming over in the October trade that sent minor leaguers Rinat Valiev and Matt Taormina to the Calgary Flames — is a tidy piece of business from Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin.
It’s one that also leaves Montreal with just under $12 million to sign remaining restricted free agents Artturi Lehkonen, Joel Armia, Charles Hudon and Mike Reilly, if they so choose, and still offers them plenty of wiggle room to do some shopping on the open market before reaching the $83-million limit of the 2019-20 NHL salary cap.
On Kulak’s end of it, gaining some much-desired security after rising through the ranks to establish himself as an NHL regular at age 25 has him excited. So does the opportunity to evolve with the young, up-and-coming group in Montreal.
“I was so comfortable signing for three years because the success we had over the year in terms of the style of game our team prides itself on—speed and puck movement and the quick attack—is something that plays right into my strength and my game,” Kulak said in a telephone interview with Sportsnet on Saturday morning.
“We played a good season and it was unfortunate to come up just short like we did,” he continued. “But I think over the next three years we have a team with potential to go on deep runs year after year, and then I think we also have our young guys coming in. Guys like (20-year-old) Ryan Poehling, who showed he could be an impact player soon. That just gets you more excited as a player.”
Kulak is also excited to show he can build on what he established in his first season with the Canadiens.
“I think I can be a 1-2 guy on the top pairing, playing against top lines every night and killing penalties,” he said. “I think of myself as a totally well-rounded defenceman who can play on both sides of the puck and create offensively but also shut down and play hard and frustrate the other team’s top players. That’s where I see myself. I see myself averaging low-20s minutes every night and being able to do that every year. That’s the goal I work towards.”
If Kulak falls just short of that but maintains the level he displayed throughout the 2018-19 campaign, he’ll be a valuable asset for the Canadiens.
After 71 games with the Flames in 2017-18, Kulak started this season in Laval, where he accumulated 11 points in 19 games and played upwards of 25 minutes per game and in all situations. Once promoted to the Canadiens, he went on to collect six goals and 17 points, finished plus-12, notched a 56.3 per-cent corsi for and averaged 17:51 per game.
The Stony Plain, AB., native acquitted himself nicely on a pair with Jordie Benn, but he also showed great versatility higher up in the lineup—paired at times with Shea Weber and at other times with Jeff Petry.
Kulak believes the experience he gained next to those top-two veterans will play a big hand in him tapping further into his potential.
“I think those guys are obviously really good players and have been for a long time,” he said. “Just watching them in practice every day, their habits in games, how they play and how hard they play every night is something I learned a lot from.”
“Just playing the whole season with them—they’re two really good veteran guys who are good players who make the game a little bit easier out there,” he added. “I thought it was huge for my game playing with those guys and just feedback I get from those guys and being able to work with them every day is special.”
Kulak will be reunited with Weber, Petry, and the rest of the Canadiens when he returns to Montreal in late-August. Until then, he’ll be in Alberta with his new fiancée Caitlyn — making wedding plans and training to become the type of player he describes himself as.
“I think I just want to continue to grow my strengths,” he said. “My shot, working with the puck at the blue line, my skating, keeping up with my time in the gym to get stronger. You see the playoffs right now and it’s a different level of battle in the corners and stuff like that.
“It’s a long season, so you want to keep working to keep up with the big boys along the walls and separating them from the puck in the corners. It’s harder to do as the season gets longer and the body is naturally getting weaker, so it’s just strength is key to improve.
“I’m a competitive guy. I play hard every night and every chance I get. But I think a little more strength and being able to punish guys in the corner a little harder and separate them from the puck will help me take my game to another level.”
It’s what the Canadiens are banking on in giving Kulak this contract. At worst, they’re getting an excellent third-pairing defenceman at a reasonable price for the next three years. One who adds some much-needed depth at a position of weakness.