On the last day of the 2014-15 season, Brett Kulak became an interesting part of history. The product of the Western Hockey League’s Vancouver Giants became the first player from the Calgary Flames’ 2012 NHL Draft class to play a big league game. His game 82 opportunity was followed by a longer apprenticeship with a predictable end date; he was an injury replacement for the puck-moving defender T.J. Brodie to begin the 2015-16 season and was returned to the American Hockey League’s Stockton Heat when Brodie was ready to return.
This season, the season-long injury to Ladislav Smid has created an opportunity for a fresh face to make a case for full-time employment on the Flames blueline. Despite the disappointing circumstances of the job opening, Kulak is focused on a return to the big time – this time as a full-timer.
“It’s always tough when a guy goes down like that for the year, but when a spot opens up you want to be that guy and that’s my plan coming into camp here,” said Kulak last weekend at Flames camp. “I want to show that I’m ready to play in the league and take that spot.”
A veteran of three different leagues during his fledgling career – he’s suited up in the NHL, AHL and ECHL – Kulak noted he learned a lot about the NHL game during his eight-game stint last season. He played almost exclusively third pairing minutes alongside veteran defender Deryk Engelland.
“It just showed me these guys as top players in the NHL, they really bring it every day, they bring their best performance every day and they’re consistent that way,” said Kulak. “I think that’s a big thing for me and … when I was playing those kind of minutes with Engelland, I think it’s just staying dialled in, always being ready for the next shift whether you get called or whether you don’t, and just being ready and always engaged in the game.”
Kulak mentioned that positioning in the defensive end is the most prominent on-ice aspect he took with him from his NHL experience. He’s optimistic about the 2016 camp, particularly given the tweaks that new head coach Glen Gulutzan is making to the team’s playing style.
“I think the coach’s systems he’s bringing in now play well for me,” said Kulak. “You need to be a good skater and one of my strengths is skating, so I think that plays right into my hand, kinda. I’m looking forward to it.”
Now entering the final year of his entry-level deal, Kulak has shown some nice signs of progression as he’s gone from being an AHL tweener, to a strong AHLer, to a borderline NHL body. With the potential risk of being labelled a “good AHLer” if he sticks at that level for too long without pushing hard for an NHL job, is this year the make or break for Kulak? Or does the impending free agency of some established NHLers make 2017-18 the big year for him?
“It’s a little of both,” said Kulak. “I don’t think it’s ever a one year or done thing. It’s always a process. You always want to keep getting better every day, but at the same time, yeah, I want to prove myself and I want to step in and show them I can be the guy that’s ready to play in the NHL.”