The 2014 Flames Fifteen – #12 Brett Kulak

Brett Kulak has quietly carved out quite the understated junior career. He might also be considered a late-bloomer. Calgary’s fourth round selection in 2012 kind-of fell off the radar, being chosen after such high-profile picks as Mark Jankowski, Patrick Sieloff and Jon Gillies in that draft.

But he’s played more professional games (14!) than any of ’em already, and he’s seemed to improve his play and his profile since getting picked.

Kulak is #12 in this year’s Flames Fifteen.

Brett Kulak may be proof that Don Hay knows how to run a junior team.

While the Vancouver Giants haven’t been a huge on-ice success, they’ve done a pretty good job preparing young defenders for the rigors of pro hockey. Under the tutledge of the former Flames coach, Kulak has gone from a WHL rookie getting heavily shielded to one of the team’s on-ice leaders.

  Justin Kent Ryan BoL Byron Taylor Christian 2013 2012
Brett Kulak 14 12 12 12 15 12 14 N/R N/P

In his draft-eligible year, Kulak played shielded minutes as a rookie and posted an NHLE of 8.2. His plus/minus was great (+29) but deceptive, as he was shielded and never really faced top-notch opposition. It also helps that the Giants were good. He was in on 9.4% of the team’s offense and generated roughly a third of his points on the PP.

The next season, the Giants were bad. Dirt-worst in the Dub. The team was a handful of promising youngsters and some spare parts, so Kulak played all the time. Everywhere. Even-strength. PP. Penalty killing. His NHLE was 15.0, on a team where scoring was hard to come by, as the Giants gave up 102 more goals than they scored. He was in on just over 20% of the team’s goals, and scored just under half of his points on the PP. That’s a deceptive stat, though, as the Giants were BAD and had to lean on their special teams to keep games from becoming complete laughers.

I saw Kulak a few times live during that season, most notably a 5-4 loss in Calgary on Kulak’s 19th birthday where the Hitmen out-shot the Giants mightily at even-strength, but Kulak led the counter-attack and kept the game close with three points (including two on the power-play). He noted to me after the game that he enjoyed the opportunity to play on a team without many big names, as he got a chance to get thrown into every situation and improve. He played briefly for Abbotsford at the end of this season, and by all accounts was adequate in 4 appearances.

And then there’s this year. The Giants rebounded from being awful and were a playoff team. Kulak used his experience from the year prior to boost his NHLE to 21.4 and really lead the way for the Giants, although getting Dalton Thrower from the Blades in the off-season probably didn’t hurt either. Kulak was an alternate captain. Kulak was in on just over a quarter of Vancouver offense, and put up half of his points on the power-play. He turned 20 in January and was the team’s leading scorer throughout much of the year, before tailing off a bit in February and March.

He played 6 Abbotsford regular season games and 4 playoff games for the Heat, often playing in place of “regular” AHL bodies. By all accounts, his quiet confidence translated nicely from the WHL to the AHL, and he was much less tentative than in his 2013 AHL sojourn.

I’ll be blunt: I like Brett Kulak. He’s not flashy. He plays a smart two-way game (at the junior level) and seems to know when to jump into the rush offensively. He’s proven to be quite good on the power-play, too. With the Flames a little thin on NHL-ready farm-team defensemen, there’s a decent chance he gets a cup of coffee in the NHL in 2014-15 if he (a) stays consistent and (b) stays healthy. Tyler Wotherspoon was an under-the-radar blueliner who got NHL time because he was even-keeled and was able-bodied when the Flames called.

My only concern with Kulak is he ain’t big by NHL standards, so he might need to fill out a bit before the NHL is anything that should be seriously considered.

  • Bean-counting cowboy

    I’m curious how his progression compares to another Flames 4th round defender.

    Would love if he could be Brodie 2.0. I know… it’s a reach.

    • piscera.infada

      Brodie: 0.44ppg, 0.79ppg, 0.86ppg

      Kulak: 0.33ppg, 0.61ppg, 0.87ppg

      What you notice about their stats (aside from the fact that Kulak is jumping more each year) is Kulak is much more of a goal scorer than Brodie was. Brodie only scored more than 10 goals once, whereas Kulak has had 9, 12, and 14 goal seasons.

      Not that I put much stock into +/-, but Brodie never had a – rating.

      The nice thing about Kulak is he’s only missed 3 games in the last three years. Nice and durable.

      • piscera.infada

        Generally speaking, Brodie was a part of better teams though. From 07/08 (Saginaw), 08/09 (Saginaw), 09/10(Barrie) the goal differential for each year respectively was +4, +16, +141. Whereas with Kulak, from 11/12 (Van), 12/13 (Van), 13/14 (Van) the goal differential was +12, -102, -14. As such, we can definitely give Kulak a bit of a pass on the plus/minus, as his teams were not as good as the teams Brodie played for (as stated in the article). It’s an interesting comparable to monitor though, as those ppg stats are encouraging.

      • SmellOfVictory

        And that makes sense. Because while Brodie is pretty much the second coming of defensive Jesus and I love him to death, I’d say his biggest flaw (the only one that really stands out to me, to be honest) is his shot. He’s not scaring anyone from the blueline – although his wrister seems decent.

      • SmellOfVictory

        Great comparison! Would be fantastic if Kulak does develop like Brodie.

        Looking back at Brodie’s progression after being drafted he spent 2 more years in the WHL (Draft +2), then 1 year in Abbotsford with a taste of 3 games with the Flames (D+3), and then was full-time with the Flames after 12 games with the Heat (D+4).

        Wotherspoons progression was identical..2 more years WHL, 1 year AHL with limited NHL games, and potentially full-time NHL starting next year(?).

        Regarding Kulak as a 2012 4th rounder he has just finished his D+2 year.

        If he follows the same development track he will spend this coming year in the AHL (D+3), get a few NHL games in, and then hopefully be ready next year (D+4) as a regular for 2015-16. This would be optimum, and while possible is likely overly optimistic.

        By D+5 (2016-17) we may be able to see Kulak suiting up regularly with the Flames. The same goes for 2012 draftees Culkin and Sieloff, although as a second rounder he may be ready a year earlier? Kulkin and Roy would follow a year later.

  • SmellOfVictory

    Great article Ryan.

    See people comparing him to Brodie and I agree. Not saying he’s going to become a player like Brodie, but his progression is certainly encouraging.

  • Jeff Lebowski

    Brodie is not ‘big’ by NHL defencemen standards either but he is the proverbial ‘horse’. Skate hard all game.

    The question I have with Kulak is: what does he do well?

    In the summer camps he did not stand out (HOWEVER some guys are gamers -practice only so/so and some guys need to time to feel comfortable) and I thought Culkin looked more impressive – I just noticed more good reads and more of propensity to make that first pass from D to forward – Kulak would go D to D A LOT.

    I think that if you’re going with youth to carry your team you need defencemen who can transition the puck in a blink of the eye. So if he’s just super smart ie has a great feel (really anticipation like a QB) to hit guys in stride.

    Defensively, playing defence to me isn’t dishing out punishment. It’s turning the puck over – either by separating puck from man -> a takeaway like Datsyuk or separating man from puck -> level a puck carrier.

    Guys who get a lot of ‘finish your check hits’ – the opponent has made a play with the puck already and you just get a lick on him – ARE NOT turning the puck over, unless they are closing so fast the force a bad pass.

    So does Kulak do any of that well? Do any Flames D prospects do those things well?

    • SmellOfVictory

      I suspect Kulak might’ve been a little gunshy during dev camp. I’ve seen a couple of his junior games and he’s a lot more aggressive, a lot less D-to-D, etc.

      Defensively I haven’t seen enough (not am I the most qualified person) to say “this dude is great defensively”, but he’s got great offensive instincts and he’s good transitionally. He also rushes the puck very well, and I did see shades of Brodie in the games I watched, although admittedly that’s with seeing Brodie playing against NHLers and Kulak playing against CHLers.

    • Parallex

      You may be right, but guys like Sielof and Kanzig
      could be included in that discussion.
      We just haven’t seen much of Sielof because of health issues so it is really hard to get a read on him just yet.
      Certainly both Sielof and Kanzig bring a totally different dimension in that they can be very physical guys. If they can also play the game they could be very valuable guys as well.

      • True, but my interest in Kulak is rooted in the fact I think two-way defenders (or defenders with some offense) are far more useful than one-dimensional “defensive” defenders, which both Sieloff and Kanzig both project to be to some degree. I am further down on Sieloff because he’s missed a ton of hockey during his formative development years – he might never get over that.

      • everton fc

        If Eric Roy can gain about 10 pounds and play better on the backend (he’s better than rated, me thinks, and skates better than rated for his body-build) he also has potential. “Me thinks”.

        Kanzig’s stock probably rises due to Burke’s presence. Perhaps Sielof, as well, based on the nature of their games. I’m not so high on Sielof either. Kanzig was a good draft-risk, in my view. But again, if Roy can work on some fundamentals, I think his offencive skills might prove a bright surprise, though he’s not as bright a prospect as Pulock obviously. And his goals decreased this past season.

    • SmellOfVictory

      I thought it was against your religion to hold grandly uninformed opinions. 😉

      I’ll second this, with the caveat that I think he and Wotherspoon are on roughly equal footing (also grandly uninformed opinion) in terms of potential.

      • The lack of information from the junior leagues makes it a lot harder to track and predict defenders. I’ve also never seen him play, so I can’t even comment on his style.

        We’ll see how he does as a pro next year. That will be a useful indicator.

  • Parallex

    Yeah, I don’t put much faith in gut feelings (least of all mine) but it’s saying that Kulak has the best chance of our d-prospects being Brodie 2.0 (AKA mid-round pick that turns into a legit top 4 guy).

  • SmellOfVictory

    Would be great if we were able to see one good D prospect per year, each in their D+4 year, be added to the Flames defensive group.

    Brodie in 2013, Wotherspoon in 2014, Kulak, Sieloff, or Culkin in 2015, Roy or Kanzig in 2016.

    Still missing an offensive puck-possession D-man plus some heavies. If Kanzig or Roy make it they’ll help with the heavy component but am doubting they’re going to be the next Doughty or Keith.

    In relation to this, by adding to some good initial analysis by Jason Gregor (table pasted below, likely garbled) if we compare Calgary’s defense by height and weight in relation to 8 top Cup contending teams right now, we see:

    – the Flames are 0.5 – 1.5″ shorter

    – the Flames are 5 – 22 lbs lighter

    – the Flames are 1 -3 years younger than most

    Top D-men Ht. Wt. Age
    LOS ANGELES 6′ 2″ 215 28.6
    ST. LOUIS 6′ 1″ 211 28.8
    COLORADO 6′ 2″ 210 28.3
    DALLAS 6′ 1.3″ 209 27.8
    ANAHEIM 6′ 1″ 205 27.5
    SAN JOSE 6′ 1.5″ 205 30
    CHICAGO 6′ 1″ 203 29.7
    MINNESOTA 6′ 1″ 198 26.4

    EDMONTON 6′ 2″ 196 25.3
    CALGARY 6′ 0.5″ 193 26.6

    Interestingly, the Oilers defense is also younger and lighter than most.

    Flames used in the comparison included Giordano, Brodie, Russell, Wideman, Butler, Smid and Wotherspoon.

    • SmellOfVictory

      That would be nice, but I have severe doubts about both Roy and Kanzig. Roy because he couldn’t find the d-zone if he had GPS and a guide dog, and Kanzig because he’s not even good enough to put up anything resembling decent points against teenagers.

  • SmellOfVictory

    What this discussion on Kulak hi-lights is the lack of depth on the back end this organization currently has. We have 5 signed established NHL defenders(Gio, Brodie, wides, Russell and Smid), although O’B is signed I don’t consider him to be an NHL defender. We have one emerging prospect at this time Spoon. You need at least 7 and probably as many as 9, For the farm you need another 7-9. We have Kulak(r), Culkan(r), Seiloff(r), Ramage(1 year AHL/ECHL), Martin(AHL0 and Roy(r) that I believe are signed. Kanzig is not included as I believe he is only able to play in the NHL and I would suggest he is not likely ready to make that step. This will be a very inexperienced group next year. Trevling and his staff will need to do some serious work to shore up the back end.
    For the main club wee need to add 2 NHL defenders or guys too good to be in AHL. In our organization we have two UFA’s that fit that bill; Butler and Smith both of whom most of us would hope could be upgraded on either through trade or the UFA market. On the farm we have 3: Billins, Cundari and Breen, I would sign the first two but we need to move on from Breen. Unless Ekbald falls to us or we move up to select him it is unlikely any other defenders we draft will be ready for 2-3 years.

  • NHL93

    Had the pleasure to watch him play in Victoria against the Royals. You really noticed him control the pace of the game when he was on the puck. He looked like Ray Bourque out there.. Good skater and very smart with the puck. I’d love it if he was able to transition nicely as a pro in the AHL this year.

  • Nick24

    Kulak is great, but I’m really high on Eric Roy. Obviously his play in the defensive is the biggest knock to his game, but he really improved his +/- this year.

    I don’t think he is necessarily better than Kulak right now, but he was just drafted last year so there’s defiantly room for improvement!