Free Agency Preview: Brett Kulak is the logical replacement for Duncan Keith on the Oilers’ blueline

Photo credit:© Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
Cam Lewis
1 year ago
Duncan Keith has informed the Edmonton Oilers that he’ll be retiring this off-season.
While having $5,538,462 more in salary cap room to work with this summer will be nice, Ken Holland will now have to go and acquire a veteran defenceman to fill Keith’s role on the team’s blueline.
As of right now, Darnell Nurse is Edmonton’s top defender on the left side and then Philip Broberg, who has just 23 games of NHL experience, would be the next one in line after that. While Broberg shows great promise as a young defenceman, it obviously wouldn’t be ideal to throw him to the wolves in a top-four role right off the hop next season. The right move would be to find a veteran defender to play on the second pair and then have Borberg start on the third pair and work to earn more minutes.
Let’s go through what the free-agent market for defencemen looks like this summer and who would be a good fit for the Oilers…

Edmonton Oilers defencemen depth chart…

  • Left Side: Darnell Nurse (UFA in 2030), Philip Broberg (RFA in 2024), Markus Niemelainen (RFA in 2024), Slater Koekkoek (UFA in 2023), Dmitri Samorukov (RFA in 2023). 
  • Right Side: Cody Ceci (UFA in 2025), Evan Bouchard (RFA in 2023), Tyson Barrie (UFA in 2024), Vincent Desharnais (UFA in 2024), Phil Kemp (RFA in 2024), Mike Kesselring (RFA in 2025). 

Defencemen on the free-agent market…

  • Ben Chiarot: 31 years old, 74 games in 2021-22, 22:51 ATOI.
  • John Klingberg: 30 years old, 74 games in 2021-22, 22:13 ATOI.
  • Nick Leddy: 31 years old, 75 games in 2021-22, 21:25 ATOI. 
  • Anton Stralman: 36 years old, 74 games in 2021-22, 21:20 ATOI. 
  • Justin Braun: 35 years old, 69 games in 2021-22, 19:33 ATOI. 
  • Josh Manson: 30 years old, 67 games in 2021-22, 18:59 ATOI. 
  • Colin Miller: 29 years old, 38 games in 2021-22, 18:59 ATOI. 
  • Zdeno Chara: 45 years old, 72 games in 2021-22, 18:44 ATOI. 
  • Alex Edler: 36 years old, 41 games in 2021-22, 18:28 ATOI. 
  • P.K. Subban: 33 years old, 77 games in 2021-22, 18:18 ATOI. 
  • Erik Gudbranson: 30 years old, 78 games in 2021-22, 18:08 ATOI. 
  • Mark Pysyk: 30 years old, 68 games in 2021-22, 17:49 ATOI. 
  • Brett Kulak: 28 years old, 74 games in 2021-22, 17:45 ATOI. 
  • Ilya Lyubushkin: 28 years old, 77 games in 2021-22, 17:27 ATOI. 
  • Marc Staal: 35 years old, 71 games in 2021-22, 17:25 ATOI. 
  • Ian Cole: 33 years old, 75 games in 2021-22, 17:09 ATOI. 
  • Nikita Zadorov: 27 years old, 74 games in 2021-22, 16:55 ATOI. 
  • Justin Schultz: 32 years old, 74 games in 2021-22, 16:55 ATOI.
  • Jan Rutta: 32 years old, 76 games in 2021-22, 16:23 ATOI. 
  • Kris Russell: 35 years old, 31 games in 2021-22, 15:26 ATOI. 
Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
The top name on the open market for a team in search of a veteran shutdown defenceman is Ben Chiarot, who cost the Florida Panthers a first-round pick and a prospect to acquire ahead of this year’s trade deadline.
It’s unlikely we’ll see Holland go fishing for the top names on the market, though. He has roughly $20 million in salary cap room to work with this summer but needs to acquire a starting goaltender and work out contracts for the team’s young restricted free agents.
Another thing to consider is that Evan Bouchard’s entry-level contract is over at the end of next season. Bouchard just put up 43 points and logged 19:48 per game in his first full season in the NHL and might be a player the team looks at locking up long-term in the not-so-distant future.
Keith’s contract synced up perfectly with Bouchard’s, so the logic internally was that Keith’s $5,538,462 coming off the books following the 2022-23 season would open up more than enough room to give Bouchard a raise. So now that Keith has retired one year early, Holland needs to make sure Keith’s replacement doesn’t impede what he can do with Bouchard.
The most logical path forward for the Oilers if they want to replace Keith through free agency would be either inking a veteran to a one-year deal or finding an inexpensive third-pairing defender who can take on a slightly larger role until Broberg is ready.
There really aren’t very many quality veteran options on this summer’s market that fit the one-year deal category. Anton Stralman or Alex Edler but both are in their mid-30s and have dealt with injuries in the past, which would make them risky additions.
Re-signing Brett Kulak would make sense for the Oilers. He fit in nicely with the team after being traded to Edmonton from Montreal and did very well when he filled in for Nurse on the top pairing. Kulak is also apparently seeking a four-year deal worth something in the range of $2.5 million annually, which is fine for a good third-pairing defender who can play up the lineup in a pinch.
Kulak has never averaged more than 18 minutes per game in a season so expecting him to fill in Keith’s 20 minutes per night might be asking a little much, but the Oilers could opt to dress seven defenders to spread the minutes around. If Nurse plays 25 minutes, a trio of Kulak, Broberg, and Markus Niemelainen could fill the other 35 minutes.
Acquiring Kulak at the trade deadline was a nice move by Holland and keeping him around makes a lot of sense for the team.


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