The NHL trade season is upon us. While the deadline is still a month away, speculation around the top deadline targets has ramped up. Much has been made about the Minnesota Wild’s interest in a high-end center to play with Kevin Fiala and Matt Boldy. Joe Pavelski, Claude Giroux, and Tomas Hertl are true rentals who would be clear upgrades over Freddy Gaudreau. But they would likely put a dent in Minnesota’s loaded prospect pool.
As far as other areas the Wild could look to upgrade, Michael Russo of The Athletic speculated they could look for an insurance depth forward, mentioning Tyler Motte, Ryan Carpenter, and Blake Comeau as potential options.
Forward depth isn’t really a concern with this team, though, is it? Connor Dewar, Brandon Duhaime, Nico Sturm, and Nick Bjugstad are all vying for a role on the fourth line. Adam Beckman has NHL experience should a scoring winger be unavailable.
If there’s one area where Minnesota should look for an insurance option, it’s on the back-end. While the forward corps has managed to stay relatively healthy, the defense has not. The top-three of Jonas Brodin, Jared Spurgeon, and Matt Dumba have missed a combined 31 games thus far, meaning an expanded role in the lineup for seventh-choice Jordie Benn.
It’s easy to see why management values Benn. He’s big-bodied, kills penalties, and brings a team-first attitude to the locker room. While those qualities matter, they’re not more important than ability. Simply put, Benn’s on-ice deficiencies outweigh any of his intangibles.
Benn’s even-strength possession numbers are by far the worst among Wild defensemen. He’s currently posting a 40.34% high-danger chance rate, 43.7% shots for share, and a 44.43% expected goals share (via NaturalStatTrick). Jon Merrill is the only other Wild blueliner whose numbers are mostly sub-50%. Benn is the clear weak link on an otherwise above-average blueline.
While Benn isn’t the worst option out there, he’s not a guy who should be relied upon come playoff time. They could always keep Calen Addison in a full-time role, but that seems unlikely as long as Spurgeon and Dumba are healthy. Addison has been impressive in his limited minutes this year, but he seems to be the eighth option when everyone is healthy.
Evason cited Addison playing a similar role to Spurgeon as the reason Benn gets the lion’s share of the injury replacement minutes.
Luckily for Wild management, depth defensemen are relatively easy to come by at the deadline. It doesn’t have to be an expensive acquisition, just someone who plays sturdy, low-event hockey.
An attractive candidate for that role is Brett Kulak. This season, the 28-year-old Montreal Canadiens defenseman has been surprisingly reliable on a historically bad team. The Habs are primed for a busy deadline as they embark on their rebuild, so acquiring Kulak would be both inexpensive and feasible.
Kulak is your average bottom-pairing defenseman. He is not offensively gifted, but Kulak is reliable defensively and can jump up in the play and contribute. Kulak posted a combined 55.5% expected goal share and a 53.5% high-danger chance share in the three seasons before this one. He filled in sufficiently for Merrill last year, helping Montreal reach the Stanley Cup playoffs.
While this year has been abysmal for almost every player in Montreal, Kulak is one of few bright spots. His underlying numbers don’t look that great, but keep in mind the quality of his supporting cast.
Kulak is a pending UFA carrying a $1.85 million cap hit. While cap space is tight for the Wild moving forward, they have over $11 million in deadline cap space, per CapFriendly. If this is indeed a year for the Wild to “go for it” and chase a Stanley Cup before the cap crunch, they have ample cash to do so.
Realistically, what would it cost the Wild to acquire a guy like Kulak? Not a lot. The Habs are open for business and are likely to extract whatever value they can from their pending free agents. If Kulak were the only piece coming from Montreal, it would cost a late-round pick and potentially a lower-tier prospect.
Injuries can and will happen, so it would be wise to consider upgrading on Benn before what Wild fans hope is a deep playoff run.
Kulak is precisely the kind of player that fills a need for Minnesota. He brings the same grit and defense-first mentality that Benn does; he’s just not a complete liability when on the ice. Kulak is accustomed to playing a depth role, has playoff experience, and would certainly welcome a chance to help a contender out. It won’t solve all of the Wild’s issues, but it at least addresses the lack of defensive depth that has, at times, caused serious concern.