Understated Kulak making case for new contract with Canadiens

Nick Suzuki had a goal and two assists and Brendan Gallagher and Cole Caufield picked up a goal and an assist each as the Montreal Canadiens defeated the Edmonton Oilers 5-2.

EDMONTON — He’s the Montreal Canadien no one’s talking about as we approach the NHL’s March 21 trade deadline, and maybe that’s a good thing.

Ben Chiarot’s pretty much a guaranteed goner between now and then. Artturi Lehkonen, too. If Jeff Petry is still in Montreal once it passes, it’ll only be for a few more months.

Heck, there’s even some (limited) buzz about Chris Wideman potentially becoming an appealing depth option for someone out there.

But we’re referring to Brett Kulak, the understated, underrated defenceman who’s found his best self under Martin St. Louis over the last 11 games.

He was even under the radar in Saturday’s 5-2 win for the Canadiens over the Edmonton Oilers. Brendan Gallagher scored his first goal in 19 games in front of family and friends at Rogers Place, Nick Suzuki bumped his production up to six points in his last two games with a goal and an assist, and Cole Caufield also scored one and set one up to get to seven goals and seven assists under St. Louis while Kulak quietly spent close to 13 minutes of his 22:29 on the night up against the world’s best player and came out on the winning side of that battle.

He helped keep Connor McDavid to just two shots on net and zero points, and he’d have barely been noticed had he not made a brilliant play to give Lehkonen his 11th goal of the season.

But the scouts in attendance surely saw Kulak then. And perhaps they even realized the 28-year-old impending unrestricted free agent come July could be a smart — and potentially cheap — rental for their team.

Whether or not the Canadiens will move him is the question.

They’ll listen. Kulak said after Saturday’s game there’s been no contract talks with the Canadiens to this point of the season. So it stands to reason they’re at least keeping the option of moving him open.

But for a team that wants to play a fast, skilled and analytically-driven game moving forward, there’s merit in trying to sign the Edmonton native to what could prove to be a bargain contract — especially up against the prospect of letting him go for a late-round draft pick that likely won’t help all that much with whatever they’re planning for the future.

“He can skate,” said St. Louis. “And the way we play, I think it shows what kind of player he can be because you just let him go and let him make reads. The guys that can skate, usually they can angle guys better.

“And that’s why I don’t like to tell guys, ‘You can be here or be there.’ So when you’re a good skater, you’re allowing yourself to really get on top of people and angling guys, which is a big part of taking time and space away — especially against good teams.”

There are other reasons to try to sign Kulak, too. The least of them being that he said, “I love playing for the Canadiens, and it would be pretty special to stay around here and contribute.”

This team has labelled the improvement of player development as its top priority and keeping someone like Kulak around could help achieve that aim. It would allow Alex Romanov to keep making strides with a good veteran insulating him, and it would enable Jordan Harris and Kaiden Guhle more time to gradually make their way to the NHL.

With Chiarot and Petry out of the future picture, and with Joel Edmundson rehabbing a back injury that’s kept him out this entire season and could end up leading him to surgery in the coming months, spots are opening up on the Canadiens’ blue line. And that’s good because Harris (if he signs after his final season at Northeastern University) and Guhle are coming.

But keeping Kulak could buy them an opportunity to develop one or both players for at least some time in the AHL. And his experience — and his attitude — can prove valuable for either one of them to lean on when they inevitably do end up playing some games with the Canadiens.

Kulak has been through everything there is to go through, and he has continued to push forward admirably.

“I played with Kulie in junior, so I’ve known him since he was 17,” said Gallagher. “I can tell you he’s a guy that you always saw it in him; he had so much potential. You saw it tonight in how well he skates. He handles adversity. He went through some tough times. He played in the (ECHL) in his first year pro, worked his way up to the NHL, and he’s just had such a positive attitude with everything he goes through.

“My agent (and Kulak’s agent, Gerry Johannson) tells a pretty funny story about when he went through arbitration (with the Calgary Flames in 2018) — he thought he took it pretty hard in there, and he came out with a smile on his face. And that’s kind of what he’s all about. He’s a positive guy to have around. Always has a smile on his face, and I can tell you the coaching staff is really enjoying having him on the team. They seem to be putting him in a lot of situations where he’s thriving right now.”

Like on the penalty kill, where Kulak played 2:28 and generated his lone point in Saturday’s contest.

Being used there regularly, after hardly ever playing in that situation over his first three seasons in Montreal, has certainly helped his rhythm.

“It’s been nice,” Kulak said. “It keeps the shifts regular. Sometimes you get into penalty trouble and you find yourself sitting there for a little while. It’s been good, and I think I’ve been growing my game as well on the PK, getting better and better and learning more tendencies in other teams' power plays. And it’s helped me a lot.”

Playing for St. Louis has also given Kulak the confidence he’s been missing at certain times with the Canadiens.

“I think, personally, the biggest difference I’ve noticed is I’m just playing hockey,” he said. “I’m not out there running through the checklist in my mind of where I’m supposed to be at that given moment or what I’m supposed to do exactly. I think I’m just playing the game, reading and reacting, and I think that’s our whole system right now and it’s allowing us to play way better and we’re just kind of dictating the game right now. It’s guys jumping up in the play and there’s no hesitation in our game anywhere. Just executing really well.”

If Kulak had consistently done it throughout his 310 NHL games, perhaps there’d be more talk about him as the deadline draws near.

More games like the one he played against Edmonton might change that.

But it might turn out to be a blessing for the Canadiens if the buzz doesn’t pick up between now and then.

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