I think we can sum up Brett Kulak with two words: “pleasant surprise”. One of the largest risers in this year’s countdown, Kulak moved up five spots from 17th last year to 12th this year and is one of about three defenceman that are expected to challenge for a bottom pair role with the Flames this season.
Well, that is, if there is even a spot for Kulak to challenge for, but that’s another matter.
A BRIEF HISTORY
I think it’s safe to say that there’s a great deal more pessimism surrounding the 2012 draft class than say, the summer of 2015 or 2016. Perhaps it seems that way because it appeared as though the whole class, save for Jon Gillies, was a write off and any movement from that precipice feels like victory. However, there is no denying that Kulak has put himself on the map and forced his way into the NHL discussion in a way that few expected just two years ago.
Drafted in the magical fourth round, 105th overall, Kulak scored 128 points over three seasons with the Vancouver Giants and generally looked impressive enough to warrant signing him to an entry-level deal.
Digression: through random fluke, I actually saw Kulak score his only goal as a member of the Abbotsford Heat, I really did. I went and saw them play en route to seeing Gaudreau’s debut as a Flame in Vancouver. It was the final game played in Abbotsford and I caught a jersey that they were throwing into the stands and had it signed by a selection of players at a table during the game.
It was a veritable murderers row: Trevor Gilles, Colin Valcourt, Coda Gordon (the one I was excited for, I am sad), and someone named Garnet Hathaway. Little did I know he would grow up to be the Garnet Hathaway of Calgary Flames fame and fortune. It is a memory I will cherish forever.
Anyway, despite the support that I showed him, Kulak struggled to start the following season and found himself playing for the Colorado Eagles of the ECHL.
Kulak surely made the most of his demotion. In 39 games with the Eagles, he scored 30 points, leading to a recall to Adirondack that saw him score 13 points in 26 games. His reward was getting a callup with the Flames for game 82 of the season (a game that featured a ton of callups), marking the first game played for a member of the Flames 2012 draft class.
Here’s a look at how he’s produced offensively so far in his career:
Though the call up was nice for Kulak and likely deserved given his hard work throughout the season, it certainly didn’t really prepare Flames fans for what happened in training camp. Thanks to a slew of injuries there was a spot available on the opening night roster, and Kulak earned it with his strong training camp and preseason.
In eight games with the Flames last season, Kulak certainly didn’t look out of place despite the fact that he was unable to register a point. Once the Flames got healthy and Kulak was returned, he was one of the Heat’s most consistent, reliable defenders, especially late in the season when Wotherspoon and Nakladal were recalled.
First off, let’s hear what Kulak himself had to say once the season ended in Stockton:
Next, let’s hear from Heat Head Coach Ryan Huska, from an interview with FlamesNation’s Ryan Pike.
On how his season went:
“[Kulak] actually had a real good year from start to finish. Of course there’s always ups and downs for players along the way, but I felt that when you look back at his body of work in general he had a pretty good upward progression where I think he became a little more confident in his ability and how he can impact a game at our level. Now, with him putting in the work that he does put in off the ice and how he prepares himself for practice, I think he’s in a situation now where he believes he can challenge for and push people out of spots up top. Getting a chance to play those games I think just strengthened his belief in his own game, which again is another positive for our young defence.”
On what Kulak needs to do to become a full-time NHLer:
“If you can play a smart brand of hockey where he’s jumping into the play, he’s using his speed to his advantage and his quickness, and he’s moving the puck quickly, so he’s not over-handling the puck at all, I think then you see the consistency come into play and a guy that can be used against all sorts of different people. So I think that’s a real big thing for him: getting that puck moving quickly, making sure that he’s consistent with his work and his effort every time he’s on the ice.”
Finally, here’s what Stockton Heat play-by-play announcer Brandon Kisker had to say. When I asked him which defencemen aside from Wotherspoon and Nakladal had the best shot at taking the next step, this was his response:
“I’d say even more so than Wotherspoon is Kulak. I thought when Brett first came down, he was riding a bit of a lull in his play, but after he pulled himself through that, it was easy to see who the top defenceman was and who Coach Huska relied on when push came to shove.
“Kulak works really, really hard and is a complete professional. I really admire his focus and drive and how he does stay even keeled when he has a good, bad or great game. I think with another summer of training hard, I really think he has a chance to push for time up with the big club and if I never see him again, I’d be happy. He really has earned his opportunity.”
WHAT COMES NEXT?
Skating is one of Kulak’s most notable skills, often creating offensive rushes from behind his own net without making a single pass. His play in Stockton certainly improved as the season wore on and played in all situations for the Heat, often paired with team captain Aaron Johnson (who honestly skated better than I was expecting all season). An underrated aspect of Kulak’s game is his shot; though rarely showcased, Kulak occasionally demonstrated an ability to fire the puck, particularly on the powerplay.
Let’s put Kulak’s season in context among his peers using simple stats like shots per game, points per game, and an interesting but imperfect stat called ‘goals created,’ which is explained in detail here.
As you can see, Kulak was second only to Jakub Nakladal in shots per game, and the goals created metric favoured Kulak over every other Heat defender. This is encouraging stuff for Kulak, especially as his NHL potential is likely predicated on his ability to move the puck and create scoring chances. Though his counting numbers weren’t fantastic, it is clear that Kulak was one of Stockton’s most effective defencemen last season.
Truthfully, Stockton struggled to score goals as a team last year (Derek Grant is excluded from that comment. Bless you Derek, fare thee well), especially from the backend. Teenaged wonder Oliver Kylington led all Stockton defencemen in goals with… five (and in 12 fewer games than Kulak), So, it wasn’t like anybody was really lighting it up last season.
Read more: FlamesNation Player Evaluations: Brett Kulak
As alluded to earlier, I think Kulak showed last season that he is ready to be given a longer look at the NHL level. However, as we have lamented several times on this website, there isn’t a lot of room on the Flames’ bottom pairing at the moment. The bottom pairing crew of Wideman, Engelland, Smid (maybe?), Nakladal (maybe?), and Wotherspoon (maybe?) all present potential contractual obstacles to Kulak, as these guys are either making a great deal more or are due for raises. That’s not including anyone that the Flames bring in on PTO’s as well.
Kulak will need to make it crystal clear that he is a better option than the names listed above in order to fight for regular NHL minutes this season. I suppose having a solid top three means that worrying about the bottom pairing is a champagne problem for the Flames. But, when the bottom pairing is also soaking up as much cap space as it is and capable, cheaper options wait in the wings, it begins to feel more like Prosecco problems.
|#20 – Ryan Culkin||#19 – Linus Lindstrom|
|#18 – Morgan Klimchuk||#17 – Mason McDonald|
|#16 – Brett Pollock||#15 – Matthew Phillips|
|#14 – Dillon Dube||#13 – Emile Poirier|