Canadiens general manager Kent Hughes says he’s not trying to move defenseman Brett Kulak ahead of Monday’s 3 pm NHL trade deadline.
“We love Brett Kulak as a player,” Hughes said Thursday morning when he met with the media at the Bell Sports Complex in Brossard, less than 24 hours after trading defenseman Ben Chiarot to the Florida Panthers.
While Hughes isn’t planning to trade Kulak, he said he will listen to offers from other teams in case he gets one he can’t refuse. But he’s not making calls to other teams to see if they’re interested in the 28-year-old defenseman who can become an unrestricted free agent this summer.
“It’s nice to be in a place where they value you and like you as a player,” Kulak said after being told about Hughes’s comment. “It helps my personal confidence and I think it just makes you want to play harder for them. Prepare and be at your best for the team. When people like you and they’re giving you opportunity and saying nice things like that it motivates you to play even harder.”
When asked if he has had any talks about a new contract, Kulak said: “We haven’t spoken about that yet. I don’t know … I think we’re going to have to wait and see what happens by Monday and go from there maybe.”
Kulak is in the final season of his three-year, US$5.5-million contract with a salary-cap hit of $1.85 million. Heading into Thursday night’s game against the Dallas Stars at the Bell Center he had 2-10-12 totals in 54 games and was minus-11 while averaging 17:55 of ice time per game.
With Chiarot gone, Kulak’s ice time will go up and he was with Alexander Romanov on a top-four defense pairing against the Stars.
Kulak admitted he will feel more comfortable once Monday’s trade deadline passes.
“I think I had a couple of days where I was starting to think about everything, all the scenarios that could play out,” he said. “But I think it has settled down in my mind. Monday’s going to come and go in a blink of the eye. It will come and it will be gone quick enough. So I think I’ve kind of settled the mind down and just focusing on the games and being at my best and playing at my best. Whatever happens, I trust management will make the best decision for the team moving forward and whatever that means. So my job stays the same, it stays simple. There were times where I started thinking about all the things that could play out, but I’ve settled down.”
Waiting for Monday
Hughes was asked what his objective is now before Monday’s trade deadline.
“I don’t know that I want to kind of announce publicly to the whole world what our objective between here and the end of the day,” he said. “I think ultimately to where there are opportunities to improve our ability to compete on a sustainable level and put that team in place that we talked about from the beginning, that’s what we’re trying to do. I think we probably look at it and say there are certain areas of uncertainty in net with (Carey Price’s) injury. We’ve got certain areas where we think we could improve as a team, too, positionally. So we consider all of that in terms of the puzzle. But there’s not one specific player that we’re saying: ‘Hey, we have to move him right now,’ other than I think we’ve said publicly before we’ll trade Jeff Petry if we can, given the family situation. But we’re only going to do that if it’s a deal that makes sense for us and if it makes sense for Jeff — and Jeff knows that. I’ve spoken to him about it.”
Since being named GM in January, Hughes has watched the Canadiens struggle under former head coach Dominique Ducharme and then get a spark when the decision was made to have Martin St. Louis replace him behind the bench. The Canadiens had an 8-6-1 record under St. Louis heading into Thursday night’s game after going 8-30-7 with Ducharme.
“We’ve had an opportunity to watch these guys in different situations,” Hughes said. “When we first got here in mid- to late-January it was tough circumstances. We were losing. There’s been a new energy, I think, from the group and increased kind of spirit, sort of speak. So it’s helped us evaluate players in different situations, quite frankly. In terms of identifying players that we want to move on from? I don’t want to say that we’re looking to move on from specific players right now.
“If we get phone calls on a trade that would make sense for us, we’ll definitely consider it,” he added. “I’ve said it before, I’ve told the players we’re not looking to make a fire come out here. I’ve tried to reassure them. If you’re an athlete, there’s an element of uncertainty when you read your name in the paper or in the media that you might be moved and we’ve tried to keep our doors open and tell players: ‘If you have questions, concerns , you want to know something, come in.’ We’re trying to communicate to the extent that we can. If we can improve our team we’ll make the move, but we don’t need to do everything between now and Monday.”
Chiarot’s future uncertain
Chiarot is in the final season of his three-year, US$10.5-million contract with a $3.5 million salary-cap hit and can become an unrestricted free agent in the summer. He said Thursday he hasn’t had any discussions about his future with the Panthers beyond the playoffs this year.
Chiarot added that he did have talks with former Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin about a contract extension last summer, but there were no contract talks with Hughes, who had decided he was going to trade the defenceman.
Chiarot spoke about how his game evolved during his three seasons with the Canadiens.
“I think I really took another step in my career here as a player,” he said. “Off the ice, growing a family (with the birth of his daughter, Emmerson, shortly before he signed with the Canadiens) it’s been a great place for me on the ice and off the ice, certainly. The coaching staff, Luke Richardson was massive for me in kind of getting me to the next step and giving me an opportunity to kind of be the player I always thought I could be. So I’ll always be grateful for my time here.”
Kulak praised Chiarot as a teammate.
“He’s a guy who made sure he was well connected with every teammate,” Kulak said. “His experience of him, he’s been on some deep playoff runs back before he came here when he was with Winnipeg and then he went to the (Stanley Cup) final with us last year. He was just a good veteran guy. He did the right things… he was a good pro, I guess you could say that. He’s been around the league for a long time and a really good person. So he brought those qualities, which are very important.
“He’s a jokester,” Kulak added. “He’d prank guys around the rink every now and then. He was always a happy guy and smiling. He’s a great teammate. He’s a guy you’d want. He’s a guy who would stand up for his teammates out there, he was scoring big goals at times. Obviously, every night he was playing big minutes, so he was a key contributor to the team’s success. But I think No. 1 he was just a good teammate over the years.”
What about Carey?
Goalie Carey Price was on the ice in Brossard Thursday morning working on his movement in the crease and taking some shots. Price has yet to play a game after surgery last July to repair a torn meniscus in his knee, followed by a 30-day stay in the NHL/NHLPA player assistant program for substance-use issues.
“We’re still in a period of uncertainty with Carey, and we’ll still be in one until Carey plays a few games and we see how his knee responds,” Hughes said. “We don’t have plans to trade a goalie right now.”
Price has four more seasons remaining in his eight-year, US$84-million contract with an annual salary-cap hit of $10.5 million.
When asked about the possibility of trading the final four years of Captain Shea Weber’s contract, Hughes said the Canadiens are pursuing cap flexibility but would not get into specifics on how they might do it.
Weber is not expected to play again because of numerous injuries, but still has four more seasons remaining on his 14-year, US$110-million contract with an annual salary-cap hit of $7,857 million. The Canadiens have him on the long-term injured-reserve list.
Weber will only earn $6 million over the final four seasons of his contract — $3 million next season, followed by three seasons at $1 million. The contract was front-loaded with Weber earning $80 million in the first six seasons.
His contract would be valuable to a team looking to get the NHL salary-cap floor while saving money. Weber has not spoken with the media since the end of last season’s Stanley Cup final.
“I met him in Vancouver,” Hughes said. “She chatted with him briefly. I don’t think I can give you that answer in terms of when he’s going to speak to the media or what not. I know from the injury standpoint I spoke with Dr. (David) Mulder the other day, it’s a tough situation for him physically speaking. I’d like to be able to give you a better answer than that, but that’s what I can give you for the time being.”
Stu Cowan: Another shot at Stanley Cup for former Hab Ben Chiarot
GM Kent Hughes thinks Ben Chiarot trade helps Canadiens and Panthers