FlamesNation Player Evaluations: Brett Kulak

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.

Season summary

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.

kulak usage

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.

  • everton fc

    If we went with these pairings next season:

    Brodie-Hamilton, Gio-Nakladal, Jokipaaka-Kulak (Engelland)(or Gio-Jokipaaka, Nakladal-Wotherpsoon/Kulak), I think this is a tight group. Not sure what to di with Wotherspoon – maybe he swaps spots w/Kulak? – but Wideman has to go (but the questions remain: “How?” and, “To Whom?”)

    And if one of Wotherspoon and Kulak really begins to consistently shine, perhaps Nakladal is moved on next season, to make room?

  • Skuehler

    Looks like we desperately need to make space on the back end.

    Def a position of strength – would be nice to see one vet moved and one vet demoted to mentor the boys in Stockton. If we also move a d prospect, hopefully we can fill one of our glaring needs on the right wing and a solid goalie.

    • FlamesFanOtherCity

      I think we seriously need to pare down the defense prospects at some point. Kulak, Culkin and Hickey are poretty similar in style. Spoon is similar to Jokipakka. Seiloff, Ollas-Mattsson (if he ever comes over), and Kanzig are the shutdown types, but the former and latter need to bring NHL speed into their game.

      Wideman, Smid and Engelland served their purpose in a rebuilding team. While many have been pleasantly surprised by Engelland, it’s time to find better options.

      Having the following pairs would probably be a reasonable deployment for this year:

      Gio-Brodie

      Jokipakka-Hamilton

      Wotherspoon-Nakladal

      Ex. Engelland

      Engelland can swap in with Nakladal. It keeps the LD/RD balanced.

  • freethe flames

    We are all singing the same basic song: BT needs to deal with the excess veteran defenders. If Smid is declared healthy enough to play he needs to be bought out; saving @2m,(if unhealthy he should retire) I have scoured the other team rosters trying to find a fair trade equivalent for Wides that made sense and had no luck,(anyone have any real suggestions) so he should be bought out too but probably won’t be and Eng’s should be the 7th defender or find a way to trade him.

  • knappsacked

    Opening night id like to see

    Gio-brodie
    Jokki-hamilton
    Wotherspoon-nakladal
    Kulak

    The bottom three can rotate in and out.
    But keep in mind we have lots of exciting prospects. If they all reach their potential we could look like:

    Brodie–hamilton
    Gio-andersson
    Kylington-hickey

    Kulak/wotherspoon have potential

  • freethe flames

    The Flames need to move some veteran bodies not just player development opportunities but cap space as well. If as most of us think Nakdaddy, Tspoon, and Kulak are upgrades over Wides and Smid and maybe over Engs then hopefully BT sees the same thing.

    Looking a the Flames cap situation gets frustrating; unless the PA uses it cap raise then they are in cap hell. Currently they have $50.7 committed for next year; buying out Raymond and Smid save them @4.7 and sending Bollig down saves another .9; making them committed to to $45. Add Johnny and Monny new contracts (somewhere between $13-15) and we are back to $60(always use the high number in your budgets) Signing the UFA’s(Grant and Nakdaddy) $2 combined, Signing the RFA’s that make IMO sense(Jooris, Spoon, Hamilton, Agostino, Arnold, and Shore) $5m that puts them at $67 and they have not signed Colborne or the 3 goalies they need; 2 for the NHL and a back up/mentor in the AHL.

    The Flames need the cap to go up or need to offload another bad contract: Wides buyout or trade, Eng’s buyout or trade, Stajan trade, or Bouma trade to add any significant pieces to this team. Alos hope that the Johnny/Monny contracts are closer to the $13 hit. The other option is to be patient for one more year; how patient will BB be?

    • everton fc

      I think they’ll be patient one more year. Colborne wants to be here, so sign him for 2 years. Naklakdal should also be signed – both are guys who can be moved, if signed for the right price. Bt I thinK Colborne’s found his game and will be fine. He’s always had more potential, than Bouma. We won’t, and shouldn’t buy out Engelland; his value, along with Ferland, is protection that can also play a regular shift. Smid and Raymond should be punted. Bollig should go down. Agreed. No one will take Stajan. Bouma may be available, as Ferland makes him obsolete. I like Jooris, but he’s a piece, a dime-a-dozen, who probably wasn’t given a fair chance under Hartley. Wotherspoon, Freddie H, Agostino and Arnold should be retained. Cut ties w/Shore. He’s another “dime-a-dozen” – do we need Shore and Jooris? I don’t think we have room.

      One more year with Ortio and either Ramo (if healed), or any of a host of pros who can play that 1/1a role. I fear the combo in Dallas some talk about as a “bridge” to Gillies may both been Jonas Hillers. I think we see how Gillies recovered, punt some pros and rely on a defence that, “on paper” looks solid.

      Wideman wan’t mentioned. Do you keep him one year, move him w/a pick to a team w/cap space that needs a defender? BT is patient, to a point. Wideman is a huge albatross. Do you keep Wideman over Engelland? I wouldn’t.

      • freethe flames

        My reasoning for keeping Shore is not b/c I think he helps the Flames but b/c he helps the Heat.(We like to think we have lot’s of depth at center but the truth is I’m not so sure) The same goes for Jooris and I sometimes think better the dime a dozen guys you know than someone else. Many of us would liked to have kept a dime a dozen Byron because we knew what he was.

        Wideman is an interesting problem; I mostly think we should buy him out but he seems to have value; a RHD who can help some teams second PP. Eng’s might have even more value on the trade market because of his play last year.(also no hassle of NTC) Again if a sound deal came up I would either or both of them as I would rather have Nakdaddy and/or Anderssen as my RHD than either of these two.

        Moving Wides, Eng’s, Bouma or Stajan are likely either part of a deal or a trade for another bad contract. I tried the other day to find a bad contract for bad contract that would fit both the Flames and the other 29 teams in regards to Wideman and nothing really made sense.

  • RedMan

    do any of Nakladal, Jokipaka, Wotherspoon, Kulak, Anderson or Kylington project as a 2nd pairing (#3/4) defenseman?

    If not, i would not be surprised if Treliving picked one of the top defenseman in the draft, maybe even trading down a couple notches.

    Seems like getting a decent goaltender is not going to be the challenge… but there is no doubt that the flames need a couple more top 6 forwards, and definitely need to add toughness and grit when doing so. I don’t like agreeing with Burke, but whne you watch the playoffs, you realize that the game of hockey changes in the post-season and size matters.

    • everton fc

      Andersson certainly does. Not sure about the others. Of those listed, Kylington is still an unknown, Nakladal “maybe”.

      If he picks Chychrun at #6, I think we’ve made a good choice. He’s everything Burke likes, and he can play.

      • Baalzamon

        It amazes me how few people realize how good a prospect Kylington is. Andersson is a great prospect. Kylington is a better one.

        Don’t believe me? Compare his career to date with Hampus Lindholm’s.

    • OKG

      Andersson and Kylington project as top pair guys to take over for Gio and eventually Brodie.

      Kulak projects as a 2nd pair shut down guy. Think a less elite Marc Eduoard Vlasic.

      Wotherspoon, Jokipakka, Culkin, and Nakladal could all be that too, but with a bigger hill to climb.

      Morrison and Sieloff are guys that project as bottom pair if they make it.

  • Burnward

    The only defense prospects that should be “untouchable” Anderson, Kylington, Hickey…maybe Culkin.

    The rest we know, more or less, what they’re going to be.