Oilers’ Re-Signing Kulak Should Be a High Priority This Offseason

The Edmonton Oilers brought in a solid player at the deadline for their third defensive pairing: Brett Kulak. Many argued that general manager Ken Holland gave up too much to acquire a third-pairing defenceman, but the 2022 second-round pick, 2024 seventh-round pick, and William Lagesson were very much worth it.

Holland’s deadline deals this season were much better than in previous years and well worth it to help push the Oilers not only into the playoffs but to the Western Conference Final, exceeding expectations.

Kulak’s Impact on the Oilers & Barrie

Kulak was a big part of the team’s success even though he isn’t the flashiest of players. He plays a hard game and is very solid defensively, something the Oilers had trouble with and still need to work on and improve. Yet, the player who was most positively affected by his addition was his defence partner Tyson Barrie.

Of the Oilers’ pairings that played over 65 minutes together at five-on-five, Kulak and Barrie were the best. Yes, they aren’t line matched against the opposition’s top players, but they did their job very well.

Tyson Barrie Edmonton Oilers
Tyson Barrie, Edmonton Oilers (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)

Kulak and Barrie led the Oilers’ defence in goals-for percentage (GF%) by a wide margin with 70.59 as they were on the ice for 12 goals for and only five against at five-on-five during the regular season. They again led the defence in GF% during the playoffs by an even wider margin despite a lower stat line. The two had a 61.54 GF% as opposed to the other two regular pairings of Darnell Nurse and Cody Ceci (51.52 GF%) and Duncan Keith and Evan Bouchard (46.15 GF%). Kulak and Barrie were on the ice for eight goals for at five-on-five and five against, while the other two pairings were on the ice for a combined 30 goals against. They may have created more offence, but in the end, what matters more is the higher GF%.

The pairing of Kulak and Barrie had a stellar Corsi for percentage of 56.16 while also having a shots for percentage of 56.25, an indication that they shut down the other team while also generating more offence and scoring chances the other way.

Barrie’s elevated play alongside Kulak is clear when you compare his performance to the other four partners he skated more than 65 minutes with in 2021-22. Only Kris Russel provided Barrie with a serviceable partnership as they had a 57.89 GF% but just a 47.14 xGF% (expected goals for percentage), meaning they got the bounces at both ends of the ice. Barrie, alongside Nurse, was average with a 50 GF% and a 48.35 xGF%. The other two partners Barrie spent a little less time with were Slater Koekkoek (40 GF%, 39.81 xGF%) and Markus Niemelainen (0.00 GF%, 36.31 xGF%), and they did not mesh well.

Related: 4 Oilers Who Likely Won’t Return for 2022-23 Season

Though Barrie is a candidate to be moved this offseason to open up cap space, at the very least, Kulak helped raise Barrie’s value, and they were factors in the Oilers’ run.

Oilers Can Afford Kulak

Kulak earned $1.85 million a season for each of the past three seasons. That is bound to go up given his impact, but I can’t see him getting more than $3 million from the Oilers or another team to play a third-pairing role.

If he re-signs with Edmonton, he would again be in that third-pairing role and likely paired with one of the rookies that will be brought up next season, like Philip Borberg, Dmitri Samorukov, or Niemelainen. But if they don’t make many changes to the defence, he should remain with Barrie and be an effective duo.

Brett Kulak Edmonton Oilers
Brett Kulak, Edmonton Oilers (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

Other teams will likely be interested in Kulak’s services, but he was playing over 17 minutes a night with the Oilers, and the team has as good of a shot as any to win the Stanley Cup. Holland won’t be able to afford a major upgrade on defence, and management should be happy with what he provided for them this season to at least begin contract talks before free agency opens.

Kulak’s Great Underlying Stats

Kulak provided the Oilers with much more offence than anticipated, scoring two goals and eight points in 18 regular-season games while assisting on five goals in 16 playoff games. This was a welcome bonus from a defensively-minded defenceman. He was also a combined plus-13 during the regular season and playoffs and did what he was brought in to do: hit, block shots, and kill penalties effectively.

On the ice for over 60 minutes shorthanded, only four total goals were scored against Kulak and the Oilers, while the PDO (luck stat) was well below average, accounting for at least one to two of the goals against or lack thereof.

Kulak uses the body efficiently as well as his stick, and while defencemen often have more giveaways than takeaways, he was an even 9-9 in the postseason and stepped up when Nurse was clearly playing through injuries. As the Oilers liked to go with the 11 forwards and seven defencemen, this gave Kulak more meaningful minutes as he continued to play well.

The Oilers have a lot of work to do this offseason, including signing many impactful forwards. Kulak shouldn’t get lost in the shuffle, and it would be unwise to let him go for nothing after he was the perfect fit in Edmonton.

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