Brett Kulak is a great story. This is a kid who spent the majority of his 2014-15 toiling away in the ECHL, the victim of a numbers game. But he got called up to play in the final, albeit meaningless, regular season NHL game of that year – and he kept it up, actually making the Flames’ 2015-16 opening roster.
Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised, though. After all, Kulak was a fourth round pick.
Seven years ago…
When the NHL draft is approaching, it isn’t the fourth rounder you get excited about. After all, what’s even in the fourth round? Leftover scraps who have been passed over multiple times by every team in the league, typically. Sure, some of those scraps can turn out to be have been hidden gems all along, but that’s far from the norm.
The first round is where all of the excitement is at. And Mikael Backlund aside, it’s only been very, very recently when the Flames have had any success in their first round selections. It’s part of why the Flames had such a dismal prospect pool up until a couple of years ago: they couldn’t even get their first picks right.
But the draft is obviously about more than the first round, and it’s the later rounds where the Flames built up their then-meagre prospect pool.
It all kicked off in 2007, where the Flames selected Keith Aulie in the fourth round. Aulie was used in part of a package to bring Matt Stajan to Calgary, and– no? We don’t want to count that?
Okay. Then it all really kicked off in 2008. In the fourth round of the 2008 NHL entry draft, the Flames selected Nicholas Larson.
Then, six picks later, still in the fourth round of the 2008 NHL entry draft, the Flames selected a top pairing defenceman: T.J. Brodie.
There were a couple of other teams who had success in 2008’s fourth round. At 93rd overall, the Washington Capitals found Braden Holtby; at 121st overall, the Detroit Red Wings picked up Gustav Nyquist.
A starting goalie, a 50-point scorer, and a top pairing defenceman were all found that late in the draft. Except the Flames kept it going.
Little bumps in the road
In 2009, the Flames selected Henrik Bjorklund in the fourth round. He sadly failed to make the NHL, depriving us of a Bourque – Backlund – Bjorklund line.
The biggest names you can find out of 2009’s fourth round come from the Nashville Predators, actually: that’s where they picked up Craig Smith and Mattias Ekholm. It’s also where the Anaheim Ducks found Sami Vatanen, and the Buffalo Sabres Marcus Foligno. That’s a small handful of teams who have been able to build their rosters from the fourth round.
The Flames looked to get back on track in 2010, though. First, they selected John Ramage, son of former Flame Rob; then, they picked up Bill Arnold. Ramage is gone from the organization now, but he did get one NHL game in before he left; meanwhile, there’s a lot of high hopes for Arnold in the form of a defensive centre at the highest level – and he was one of the Adirondack Flames’ top players in his first professional season, too.
Players from 2010 are still in their early 20s, so they’re still just beginning to make big league impacts. Teemu Pulkkinen is one of those guys – but as it stands, with Arnold alone, the Flames are in good position from their 2010 fourth round.
The big fish
The 2011 draft was a good one.
After making picks that looked successful, but haven’t quite panned out to the extent one would have hoped, in the first two rounds – Sven Baertschi, Markus Granlund, and Tyler Wotherspoon – the Flames selected one of the best kids available: Johnny Gaudreau.
Going into this season, Gaudreau is 13th in overall scoring out of everyone taken from the 2011 draft. Everyone above him has over 100 games played; Gaudeau, just 81. Only two players – Andrew Shaw and Ondrej Palat – were selected after him and have scored more; Gaudreau’s points per game are higher than theirs, though, along with, well, every other player who has scored more than him to date.
Of course, Gaudreau has only played one season, so we have to see if he can repeat his success – but as it stands, the Flames got a first liner in the fourth round. Nobody else did that.
And now, Kulak
Only three players from 2012’s fourth round have played any NHL games: Cedric Paquette, who has 66, Josh Anderson, who has six himself, and Brett Kulak, who has just the one – but will get his second in on Oct. 7.
Kids selected in 2012 are still in their very early 20s, so you don’t exactly expect there to be a ton of NHLers from this draft just yet; and indeed, just 10 have played 100 NHL games to date, and they were all first round picks. That’s to be expected. Fourth rounders from 2012… aren’t.
And yet, the Flames will have Kulak on their opening right roster. Sure, injuries helped get him there – if fellow fourth rounder T.J. Brodie was uninjured, it’s likely Kulak wouldn’t be taking to the ice – but fact is, he still beat out a lot of players to secure his spot.
I suppose this is a word of caution about getting hyped up about him. After all, when Brodie first turned professional in 2010-11, he was incredible in training camp, and then completely flopped in the NHL. He played three games, was terrible in all of them, and got sent down after spending three more games as a healthy scratch.
Kulak has had an impressive preseason, but he hasn’t played an actual NHL game yet. One with meaning, and one with a competition’s top roster in place. That’s still new to him, and we have no idea how well he’ll do.
But hey – unlike Brodie, he’s doing this a year after professional experience, rising up from the ECHL to the NHL. And Brodie ended up becoming a top pairing guy anyway, so really, who’s to say what’s in store for Kulak’s future – especially when, at just 21 years of age, he’s got so much of it ahead of him?
The Flames didn’t have a fourth round pick in 2013; they traded it to the Florida Panthers for Corban Knight, who was traded back to the Panthers for Drew Shore. Their 2014 fourth round pick went to the Leafs to pick up Joe Colborne, and their 2015 fourth rounder went to San Jose in exchange for T.J. Galiardi.
So basically: since 2008, for their fourth round picks, the Flames have gotten four NHL players, including a top pairing defenceman and a first line forward, as well as three prospects who have all already played in the NHL, and range from at least decent to promising.
That’s pretty outstanding use of a later round where you can’t really expect much.