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.
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.