Brett Kulak basically went from the ECHL to the NHL in a span of a couple of months.
Okay, so he isn’t a full time NHLer – and with the number of bodies the Flames have on their blueline, it might be a bit. But when you’re one of the leaders of the Stockton Heat’s backend – and you got there after earning your way onto an NHL lineup – then you’re probably someone to watch out for.
T.J. Brodie’s early pre-season injury left a spot open for a defenceman. The Flames had a couple of options: Ryan Wilson had been having a mostly good training camp, while the European free agent Jakub Nakladal was no doubt pushing for a job.
The open spot went to Kulak. It was a spot that carried the asterisk of a limited time offer – barring further injuries, when Brodie returned, there would be no more room for him – but it was a spot fully earned as Kulak’s training camp made it impossible to demote him to start the year.
He started the season playing six games in the NHL. His ice time was limited as he played on the third pairing with Deryk Engelland, but the two didn’t look half bad together. Kulak brought a poise that had previously been difficult to find on the backend, and though his stat line was left mostly blank, he looked good.
Then Ladislav Smid came back, and so did Brodie, and Kulak’s time was up.
He spent it wisely in the AHL, going on to be Stockton’s most prolific defenceman. He played 59 games – the most out of all Heat defenders – and scored three goals and 17 points over that time – just one point behind veteran defenceman Aaron Johnson, 11 years his senior.
Kulak had 107 shots on net for the Heat – about 1.8 per game – as the only Heat defenceman to reach triple digits.
He finished his season named the top defensive player for the Heat. Towards the end of the year, the Flames called him up for an additional two NHL games in which he received far more ice time, although his first NHL point still looms on the horizon.
Impact on team
Via Brandon Kisker of the Stockton Heat:
Brett did have a tremendous training camp and I thought was one of the top defenseman for the Flames in the little amount of training camp I got to take in, in person. He definitely deserved to start up there and beating out at that time, a longtime European pro in Jakub Nakladal was impressive for the kid who did go from ECHL to NHL the year previous.
And when you look at his stats from his games in October with Calgary, 6 games and just a -1 isn’t too terrible, especially for a kid who’s just played one NHL game before.
However when he was returned to Stockton he had a bit of a lull in his game and it took him a while to get his groove back, but when he did, he was easily one of the top defenders. I loved seeing him pair with Aaron Johnson. Johnny is a terrific defenseman and leader, and I think his poise and decision making really rubbed off on Brett. Sure you get a few mistakes here and there that cost your team, but among all of Calgary’s top defensive prospects, you could consistently see, and say, that Brett was playing the best of them all.
That’s clearly evidenced by the big time that Kulak ate up during the second portion of the season. Even with Tyler Wotherspoon (whom I don’t recall playing an awful lot with Brett this season), Kulak’s helmet was consistently the one tapped by Coach Ryan Huska and Assistant Coach Todd Gill to go out and defend during key defensive situations.
One thing I can tell you about Brett that’s impressive is his focus. From the first interview I ever had with him to the last, you can just tell he’s focused on being a top NHL’er. He seems more interested in being the best he can be on the ice more so than maybe any other guy in that locker room.
Sure you’d like to see Brett finish with a few more points but that can be said about everyone. The fact is that Kulak was the second leading point getter on the team among defenseman with 17, but you also have to consider that Kulak was more important to the Heat defensively as well, and when you think about playing with the lead or in a tie, you were more interested in Kulak playing against opposing team’s top lines than him putting up points. That offensive job should fall more to Kenney Morrison and Oliver Kylington.
So while some may think the blueline could become cluttered in Calgary with Mark Giordano, TJ Brodie, and Dougie Hamilton as your three “cornerstones” and a host of great prospects waiting for their chance, it will come down to which prospect wants it more.
I’m not sure anyone “wants it more” than Brett Kulak and I think he’s not too far off.
Being the go-to guy on his AHL team in just his second professional season is pretty huge for Kulak. His name is sometimes left out as someone who could challenge for a spot on the NHL club – likely because he isn’t as shiny a new toy as some recent draft picks (Kylington, Andersson), nor is he up for a new contract (Wotherspoon) – but he’s definitely someone to keep in mind.
In the NHL, Kulak was one of the most sheltered defencemen. He didn’t get quite the zone starts Jakub Nakladal did, though he did face some of the weakest competition of anyone on the Flames to play at least 50 even strength minutes.
But hey – his 55.62 5v5 CF% was the highest of anyone on the Flames to play that much. He got easy minutes in the NHL – and thrived with them. There’s hope to be found in that.
What comes next?
Dennis Wideman, Deryk Engelland, and Ladislav Smid are basically all in the way of Nakladal, Wotherspoon, and even Kulak.
Kulak, who’s listed as 6’2 and 187 lbs., still needs to get stronger and better adapted to the professional game. But he’s now two seasons into his career, and well on his way to progressing to the next level. He’s thrived in the circumstances he’s played in so far, from NHL minutes he can handle to being the top defender on an AHL team – all at 22 years of age.
Kulak’s name is going to be one to keep an eye on. He’ll be a restricted free agent after the 2016-17 season, but based on his progression of the past two years alone, he’ll likely be retained – and it’s entirely possible he’ll be in the Flames’ future plans, maybe even for the long-term.
If Kulak can’t break into the NHL next season, then he should still be a leader on a hopefully improved Stockton squadron – and we’ll see where we go from there. But there’s no doubt this is a prospect with a good head on his shoulders, and a ton of potential.