Brett Kulak and the expansion draft

Let’s quickly review the rules for the upcoming NHL expansion draft. One specific rule, actually:

All first- and second-year professionals, as well as all unsigned draft choices, will be exempt from selection (and will not be counted toward their club’s applicable protection limits).

Brett Kulak played his 2014-15 season in the ECHL, AHL, and NHL. He played his 2015-16 season in the AHL and NHL. He is playing his 2016-17 season – his third professional year – in the NHL.

It does not matter how many games Kulak plays this season. Kulak could be sent to Adirondack and play the rest of the year there and he would still be eligible to be taken in the expansion draft unless he is specifically protected. He is not a part of any exemptions, just as Emile Poirier and Hunter Shinkaruk are not.

The Flames will meet player exposure requirements with him or without. They have no impact on Kulak’s status as a third-year pro.

And the way things are currently going, he could be the most interesting story on the Flames this year.

Three defencemen, or fewer forwards?

The Flames have two options when it comes to protecting their skaters: either they can protect three defencemen and seven forwards, or they can protect eight skaters.

Let’s assume the Flames go with the first option. If they protected four defencemen, then they would only be able to protect four forwards. Who? Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau, Sam Bennett, and Mikael Backlund? Say goodbye to Michael Frolik, in that case. It simply doesn’t make sense for the makeup of this team.

So if the Flames are only going to protect three defencemen, then barring any trades, their options are Mark Giordano, T.J. Brodie, Dougie Hamilton, Jyrki Jokipakka, and Kulak.

Get the terrible start to the season out of your heads. It’s extremely difficult to imagine anyone other than Giordano, Brodie, and Hamilton being protected. They’re the big three on this team. They may not be meeting it right now, but they’re all players with 50-point potential. Giordano and Brodie have built up very good trac records, and for all any may gripe over Hamilton, he is 23 years old. You do not throw any of this away.

Kulak’s emergence

On the surface, Kulak’s numbers are hardly impressive. He’s 22 years old, about six months younger than Hamilton. He’s played 15 NHL games, and has one assist to show for it. His career ice time average is 14:30, and he has played over 20 minutes in just one game. Any glance at a standard stat sheet tells you this is a bottom pairing defenceman only just starting to find his way in the NHL with no guarantees he even makes it for real.

But.

Through six games this season – and that includes both nightmarish southern California weekend games – he has a 5v5 CF of 57.76%. That’s second on the Flames, behind just Matthew Tkachuk. That’s with 46.65% offensive zone starts, which is a little higher on the end of deployment for Flames defencemen, but hardly aggressive sheltering. 

Almost every single Flame improves when Kulak is on the ice. Deryk Engelland has spent, by far, the most time with him – 74:55 5v5 minutes – and while his improvement isn’t dramatic – not even a full percentage point – it’s still there.

And it’d  be one thing if this was brand new. It’s not. Kulak played eight NHL games in the 2015-16 season, again winning a spot out of camp; he was one of the top corsi players on the team then, too. His WOWY stats weren’t as consistent – not everybody saw an improvement when sharing the ice with him – but many did (including his most common partner, Engelland, with a dramatic 11.75% 5v5 CF increase).

These are all really small sample sizes, but fact is, Kulak is trending in a very positive direction. Couple that with how he’s one of the few Flames actually worth watching right now – him and Tkachuk, so it must be part of a youthful exuberance thing, plus actually being good – and if this keeps up, then we could be looking at the emergence of a top-four defenceman here.

There’s no reason to scratch Kulak another game. And there’s no reason to think this doesn’t keep up.

The problem

Kulak is 22, in his third professional season, and looking like he deserves top four time. He’s already getting powerplay time.

If he emerges as a top four defenceman over the course of this season, then that’s that.

It’s not as though the Flames would be totally screwed if Kulak were taken; not with Oliver Kylington, Rasmus Andersson, Brandon Hickey, and even Adam Fox on the horizon. But a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Having a young top four defenceman is going to be better than having a young defenceman who may or may not be a top four guy.

So if Kulak continues trending upwards, losing him in the expansion draft could be a problem.

It’s hard to see the solution happening

Giordano is 33 years old. Brodie is 26. Hamilton is 23, and Kulak is 22.

One of these things is not like the others, one of these things just doesn’t belong, and it’s the Flames’ captain.

Even if the Flames rescue themselves from this horrid start to the season they’ve got going on, it’s simply more likely for Giordano to decline much sooner than the rest of these guys. Worse yet, that decline carries with it a cap hit of $6.75 million that’s going to run until he’s 39 years old. It’s pretty likely that contract becomes unpleasant.

Therefore: protect Brodie, protect Hamilton, protect Kulak, keep together the formations of a young, mobile top four, and shed a bad contract before it has the chance to get bad.

This carries with it a number of problems.

  1. Hockey is nothing if not overly sentimental. You think the Flames are going to do their captain like that? Especially when he should have two Norrises by now and had a 56-point season last year?
  2. You’re going to give up Giordano for nothing? We can talk about how gross his contract is likely to become years down the line; that doesn’t mean he’s worthless now. Bad asset management.
  3. So then, say you trade Giordano. For what, another asset you have to protect? In all likelihood, that’s what it would end up being, in which case, say goodbye to that return, or Frolik, or Troy Brouwer, or Micheal Ferland, or Shinkaruk… Either way, you’re almost certainly losing somebody you like.

So what is the solution, in that case? If Kulak emerges, what do you do then?

That’s what’s going to be so interesting to find out.

A disclaimer

Kulak is not an every day top four defenceman… that we know of, at this point in time. This is all based in speculation that he becomes one by the time it’s the expansion draft. And this could just be a hot streak, and maybe he just tops out at a pretty good bottom pairing guy to have, but that’s not quite what things are looking like at this point in time.

Besides, it’s always more fun to discuss and prepare for a worst-case scenario – it’s just that this one so happens to see the Flames losing what could very well be a top four defenceman in his early 20s for nothing.

Which would, without a doubt, suck. But that’s not what’s happening just yet.

But it could.

  • ronipedia

    One thing in our favour: LV has to take 20/30 guys who are signed through 2017/18. Kulak is not. Could be they get those ten guys elsewhere. He’s not a proven NHLer yet, doesn’t have a contract next year. Could just as well take Jokipakka. Kind of a crapshoot.

    It’d be a risk to leave him unprotected, but it’s an expansion draft, they’re gonna get somebody we like regardless. In my mind it has to be 7/3/1.

    I understand the case for exposing Gio, if you’re a robot, but, you know, not gonna happen.

  • dontcryWOLF88

    Giordano and Kulak for Trouba.

    Haha. Okay, that’s mostly a joke. But, there is a certain reality where that might work for everyone. Kulak satisfies jets request for a young player with promise, Giordano would be the bridge until that rounds out (if that does happen is a question mark). Flames add some cap room for the next few years taking on Trouba’s 2 year 5m5$ deal. Flames also don’t need to worry about protecting anyone else on D in that reality.

  • Juan Valdez

    “You’re going to give up Giordano for nothing? We can talk about how gross his contract is likely to become years down the line; that doesn’t mean he’s worthless now. Bad asset management.”

    Signing him to that contract to begin with was bad asset management.

    • deantheraven

      It might look bad this season, but it didn’t look bad then. I actually could see a world where the Flames trade their captain. Out of the playoffs but not looking at another top 6 draft pick… It could happen this year. Just not sure if they’d get the return they’d want, today or at the deadline.

  • PrairieStew

    If Calgary has concerns about protecting the likes of Kulak and Jokipakka; then other teams will be exposing players with similar, and in some cases far superior ability / value.

    What we need to realize – the Flames are going to lose one player and one player only. It could be a defenseman like Kulak , Joki or Wotherspoon, or a forward like Stajan, Bouma, Shinkaruk, or Poirer. In every case – not a catastrophic hole to fill.

    It will be interesting to see how teams approach it – do you expose an older guy with a higher salary like Giordano, expecting Las Vegas to go with a younger roster? On the other hand Vegas will still have to make the salary floor and they won’t do that picking up 25 guys finishing their EL contracts.

    If I’m running Vegas – I go as cheap as I can in the expansion draft – then trade for dead weight salary to gain assets ( one year too late for Wideman !). In that case, it might be worth exposing Gio.

    • cjc

      I mostly agree, but something else to keep in mind is that LV will want to ice a reasonably competitive team ASAP – I don`t mean playoffs, but customers won`t tolerate getting creamed on a nightly basis for long.

      A player like Gio, while not necessarily a great contract, would look good in those circumstances. That said, LV can only afford to take a few big money contracts in the draft AND they will need to populate a farm system as well. Players on 2-way contracts will have value in that context.

      If Calgary really wants to protect a particular player (or players), they could trade LV a pick in exchange for not selecting that player.

    • everton fc

      I’d protect Kulak. Not Jokipaaka. And I think Kulak is an everyday defenceman right now. So I disagree with that assessment.

      We will only lose one player. Good point.

      I don’t think we lose Gio for nothing. Agreed.

      I think you protect Ferland and Kulak. The others – Gaudreau, Monahan, Bennett, Backlund, Frolik, are obvious.

      You hope a guy like Bouma gets lifted. Or Chiasson. Or Freddie.

  • Greatsave

    I love speculating as much as the next guy, but speculating on the Expansion Draft is more exhausting than entertaining. There are just so many moving parts and endless possibilities. What if a player signs a new deal? What if a player gets traded? What if a player gets injured and doesn’t meet exposure requirements? What if a team has both Fleury and Murray and trades one of them? What if they don’t? Who do they protect? Do you expose your 2017 UFAs hoping that they won’t sign with Vegas and Vegas will pass? Especially if they’re older e.g. Thornton/Marleau/Ribeiro/Fisher?

    It’s. Exhausting.

    • Johnny Goooooooaldreau

      Jarome should have been traded at the same age, instead of 2 years later.

      Gio is not a smooth skater, he is just going to get slower and slower. Forget loyalty to a player, the Flames need to have loyalty to the fans and try to win the cup, and that is done by proper asset management.

      Last year before he was extended was the time to capitalize on him.

      Now he’s just a declining asset. If we can’t trade him for something worthwhile, then he should be exposed.

      If he IS exposed and taken, then it won’t be “for nothing”, it will be for a very useful $6.75M in cap space.

      • Thunder1

        Exactly.

        As I stated earlier in my
        trash-ridden post, if you could move Gio and his 6.75 mil/6 yr albatross for a second round pick, you’d do it in a New York minute.

        There is not a stupid enough gm, including Benning, who’d touch that trade today.

        Certainly not 3 years from today either!

  • Blackgold

    Surprised that one rule not mentioned is that you have to protect a player that has a NTC in their contract. That includes Brouwer, Frolik, Stajan, and Giordano. So you have to protect the captain. End of discussion. With the 3 forwards on NTC and JH and Monahan, you can only protect 1 other forward, you can’t protect 4 defence. Who do you expose Backland or Bouma?

  • Johnny Goooooooaldreau

    The same people on here who talk about how it’s all about sample sizes when talking about hockey nowadays, are the ones who want to keep Gio, but don’t seem to care that it really isn’t wise to hand out 6 x 6.75 to a 33 year old and they are also the same people who complained about signing 31 year old Troy Brouwer for 4 years.

    Then when you point out the age of Giordano they trotted out some excuse about how Gio was a “young” 32 because of only having played 500 games in the league, well sample size, sample size, sample size. Gio is a 33 year old “under-sized” D-man in the FIRST year of a 6 year contract.

    Like you guys are always saying… he is what he is.

    Cinderella on the night of the ball

    And what he should have been was turned into some younger assets.

    • jupiter

      M.Giordano makes 6.75x 6 because that is what the NHL price is for a defenseman of his calibre.

      I doubt anyone thinks he will have the same skills 6 years from now, but Calgary had to pay it or another team would have stepped up and taken him.

      My guess is that management thinks he can play at a high skill for 3 more years. That’s a good deal for the Flames.

      Undersized?? How big should he be?

    • Albertabeef

      Ok so if big Hammy can’t move guys in front of the net do you want another? Keep Gio, Brodie, and Kulak and expose Hammy and it would make us a way better team. Gladly lose the overpriced Brouwer and Frolik. Way to expensive for older guys who have never broke 20 goals in a season. Somebody wake me when this “Burke era” is over. YUK!!!

    • Stan

      Lmao so now we are arguing that we should trade Gio because in one picture where he is standing beside Gaudreau he looks like he must be 5’10”?? You’re an idiot.

  • The GREAT WW

    Let’s go back to The Devils: Gio for Pavel Zacha……he is off to a slow start but does not need protecting I believe.
    Gives the Devils their #1 D back and they still have Hall.
    Give or take a draft pick or prospect…..

    WW

  • snotss

    who actually thought we would be talking of dealing geo our captin..leader…our rock back on d….has times turned now and his game is not the same..what the hell happened to his game???????is the coach’s system to blame… are we stuck again with a declining player with a huge contract!!!!.is this another bt contract mistake