Brett Kulak eyes an NHL opportunity for the second season in a row

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.”

  • freethe flames

    He along with Tspoon have come along way the last two seasons and I would have no problem with both of them making the big club and being 6/7 depending on how they are playing. Kulak may have the potential to play in the Top 4 but at the moment I have JJ ahead of him.

    The issue is that with expensive veterans ahead of them Eng’s and Wide’s it will nearly impossible for all 3(Kulak/Spoon/JJ) of these left handed defenders to make it out of camp. In an earlier thread this week there was discussion about the possibility of Russell returning; these 3 defenders makes me believe it would be a waste.

    Based upon who we have signed my ideal pairings would be: Tj/Gio, Hamilton/JJ, Wides or Eng’s(depending on opponent)/either Kulak(whom I’m leaning towards) or Tspoon.

    But in my fantasy world of who is really available for the Flames it would moving both Wides and Eng’s for draft picks or a RW who can play and sign Nakladal. Then my pairings would look like the above except Nakladal would play everynight and Kualk and Tspoon would be the 6/7 depending on how they are playing.

    I have not commented much on the Johnny Hockey situation but after watching last nights game it’s clear to me that we need him signed. I have been in favour of Taresenko money since the beginning and am now even more convinced that is what needs to be done. Even if it was a bit more say $7.6 a year it would be worth it for this club. Also glad to hear Backs is skating with the club(although noncontact jersey) and now we need to hear that Monny is back on the ice.

  • OKG

    Kulak is the fourth best defenseman in the Flames organization right now. Quote me on that. He may not have Jokipakka’s physicality, Wideman’s offensive skill, or Engelland’s fat contract, and he may not be an ideal #4 because of his inexperience, but I would feel very comfortable if he were paired with Gio, Brodie or Hamilton – all high-end guys who can cover for him as he learns. Wotherspoon is steady, but we don’t have the margin for steady. Our forward group isn’t the most mature where they can carry the offense… those 25-30 points Russell gave us.. we need them from someone. Kulak can not only give you that sort of Tier III offense but he plays a tighter gap than Russell and is a comparable skater. His first pass will get him out of many rough situations.

  • Prototype369

    I honestly wouldn’t mind giving Wotherspoon minutes this season, limited albeit, but letting Kulak mature in the AHL for one more season. Reason being, the flames are crowded on the blue line. Smid, Engelland and Wideman get off the books next season, and we have Jokipaka as well, who is most probably going to get claimed in the expansion draft. At that point, we can have a top 3 of Gio, Brodie and Hamilton, and then we would need a dependable free agency signing, and then we have roughly three spots available for the likes of Wotherspoon, Kulak, Kylington, Andersson.

  • Cheeky

    Interesting scenario to be in. I’m enjoying the fact that finally we have some D prospects pushing for spots after a few years of false hope. We can all agree that both Wotherspoon and Kulak are pushing for spots, but who makes the most sense being that 7th guy sitting in the pressbox waiting out an injury to get a game in. Let’s be reasonable as the vets (Gio, Brodie, Hamilton, Wideman, JJ, Engelland) are starting game 1 (barring any injuries, then it’s a different situation altogether). My opinion is Wotherspoon makes more sense (especially being more 3rd pairing suited with Kulak putting in valuable first pairing mins down in Stockton, coming up later when injuries occur or fingers crossed Wideman gets traded). In a perfect world Wideman would be gone, Engelland rotating in the pressbox with Kulak and Wotherspoon starting…

  • RealMcHockeyReturns

    Wish a trade happened to get rid of one veteran D-man and then we can get both Kulak & Wotherspoon going in the NHL…even if for just 1 year when Kylington or others may overtake them. They need the shot….trade Wideman or Engelland after 10-20 games.

  • RedMan

    Russell is waiting for the Flames to make a decision, will sign with edmonton if Flames don’t pick him up. Flames are waiting to see what happens with Gaudreau before making a decision on a defenseman. Flames clearly want to bring in a veteran defender at least as good as Russell, but would spend more if they get the chance at as legit 2nd pairing defender, then use the AHL guys to fill in for injuries.

    My best guess is that Russell ends up in edmonton next week at 3.5 for one year, after JG signs for 7.375 for 7 yrs