So we’re at that point of the year, mere weeks away from the regular season, and the typical discussion of who could make the roster to fill any lingering holes. One hole of note is on the defense, and it’s a rather important one.
The reality that Jakub Nakladal will be re-signed anytime soon – or at all for that matter – is increasingly diminishing. Ladislav Smid is done for the season (and presumably his career), and we’ve hit a fever pitch with discussion of whether or not the Flames should bite on Kris Russell again.
Rather than pursue Russell or a guy on a PTO like Nicklas Grossmann, the Flames should look internally.
If the objective for the Flames is to find someone who can slot in under contract for cheap and hopefully provide some positive impact while on ice, then they can start with Brett Kulak. After splitting time in 2014-15 between the AHL and ECHL, Kulak made some significant strides in the right direction with Stockton.
When he finally earned a short stint last season, Kulak did nearly everything right to warrant more time. His on-ice impacts were impressive for where and what he was used for (via Corsica Hockey):
For Kulak, 56.41 of those 5v5 minutes came when he played with Deryk Engelland. It’s the worst kept secret that Engelland’s results on-ice can be a bit drag on his partner’s on-ice results. Even though that may be the case historically, the two worked pretty well together last season. In that limited time together, the pair boasted a 58.42% CF at 5v5 (via Corsica’s WOWY tool):
And this is why, with what limited data is available, there is a case for Brett Kulak to – at the very least – be on the third pairing with either Jyrki Jokipakka, Deryk Engelland, or Dennis Wideman to start the season. Strictly from a financial standpoint, he’s on the final year of his entry-level contract, and the added flexibility it provides is reason enough.
His on-ice results are strong enough that it would be foolish to not explore them and see if he can hang continuously on the third or even second pairing to see what the Flames have. And with a team where there isn’t much option for the second pairing to play with Dougie Hamilton, there is an opportunity to try him there to start.
But in the immediate future – if the opportunity arose – the third pairing is a good jumping off point to truly see what the Flames have in him. The only real catch with Kulak is he’s a left-handed shot and on a team so desperate for right-handed shots, the handedness conundrum becomes a further issue.
If there is one guy who saw time in Hartley’s doghouse more than most Flames players it was Tyler Wotherspoon. In this new Glen Gulutzan era of Flames hockey this should be Wotherspoon’s opportunity to get a real, sustained look at the NHL level. A left-handed shot like Kulak, Wotherspoon received similar usage and minutes on the Flames’ third pairing:
Again, the biggest takeaways here are the limited minutes, but this should hopefully help fans get the idea that Wotherspoon and Kulak can provide value. The biggest luxury Wotherspoon had last season was playing 105.35 of those 5v5 minutes with Jakub Nakladal. In that time they posted an acceptable 50.52% CF together:
Beyond that, every other sample is extremely small but still, like Kulak, it lends itself to the importance of the team finding a way to showcase one or both of them. This season is the best opportunity the Flames have had in quite some time to see whether or not Wotherspoon can be an NHL defenseman, or if he’s destined for the AHL, or other leagues.
Wotherspoon has come a long way since his 14 game sample back in 2013-14 when he produced an abysmal 40.52% CF at 5v5. It was apparent at the time that sitting him in the pressbox in 2014-15 was wrong and any playing time then could have been a benefit to improving his game. Hopefully this is the year for seeing what he can be at the NHL level.
So who is it? Kulak or Wotherspoon?
Kulak honestly fits the bill for what the team needs to carry as a six or seven guy to start the season. From what we’ve seen in the preseason and last season he moves the puck well, can distribute the puck, play with less than preferred partners, and potentially slot in higher if required.
He has all the requisite individual skills to be an option and now is the time to fully realize it.
All of this isn’t to say that Wotherspoon doesn’t have distinguishable value on this team. Wotherspoon can move the puck decently, he can potentially eat even strength minutes in controlled usage, and there is always the possibility of seeing him play on the second unit penalty kill.
But right now – from a strictly personal perspective – I would lean more towards Kulak as being the guy the Flames use to start the season until an injury, or if he stumbles.