In a salary cap world, developing and managing young players is absolutely crucial for National Hockey League clubs to hold onto their stars and stay competitive over the long term. Teams have to develop youngsters into roster players, identify which of those guys will be core pieces, and then flip out the roster players for effective youngsters to fill out the bottom part of their lineups.
For the Calgary Flames, Brett Kulak is arguably the best example of recent success in finding effective depth. Through the first 15 games of the 2016-17 season, he’s arguably the biggest positive story for the club and arguably one of their better players overall at this point in the season.
There are two things that are specifically impressive about Kulak’s tenure thus far. He recently returned to the Flames lineup after sitting in the press box for six games as a healthy scratch, and he’s become a defensive stalwart alongside third pairing partner Deryk Engelland, who has seen a resurgence in his game early this season while paired with Kulak.
IN AND OUT
Over the 15 games this season, Kulak has played seven games in drips and drabs. He sat for two games as a healthy scratch, then played three, then was scratched for six straight games, then came back in for Calgary’s game in San Jose. Despite playing on the third pairing and his infrequent ice time, he’s emerged as one of Calgary’s better players – his plus-seven rating is second on the club and his 56.5 Corsi For percentage is second on the team behind fellow rookie Matthew Tkachuk.
Flames head coach Glen Gulutzan was complementary of Kulak’s readiness to play after his layoff.
“I thought Brett did a fantastic job of not playing for a prolonged period of time, and then being ready to play in a big-time game,” said Gulutzan. “I thought that was impressive for a young guy. Now the challenge for him is to keep it going.”
For his part, Kulak credited his routine for maintaining his readiness. He prepared on every game day as if he was going to be suiting up, and took the pre-game warm-up skate regardless of whether he was slated to play that game or not.
“I think I just had to keep my mindset consistent,” said Kulak. “I think that helped me out, big-time. You’ve got to keep going through the process and working every day as if you are going to be in the lineup and when you finally get told you’re not, that’s the way it goes sometimes in the game. When I got told I was back in the lineup there I was really excited, and I thought it gave me a little energy, a little energy jump in my step, and I was ready to go and I felt like I was able to pick up right where I left off.”
A STRONG PARTNERSHIP
Last season, Kulak played the first eight games of the year as an injury replacement for T.J. Brodie. He was primarily partnered with Deryk Engelland and had fairly strong results in somewhat limited duty. This season, he’s returned to Engelland’s left side – when he’s played – and he played the majority of his time with the veteran. The results have been promising.
“Maybe he’s helping Engy, maybe Engy’s helping him,” pondered Gulutzan after a Flames practice when asked about Engelland’s veteran presence helping Kulak adjust to the NHL.
In just shy of 94 minutes playing together, Engelland and Kulak have a 54.3 Corsi For percentage. When Engelland plays with anybody else, his percentage drops to 46.4. Sample sizes aside, that’s a pretty good jump.
Kulak noted that the familiarity that he and Engelland have with each other’s game – a familiarity that’s still growing – has helped their success so far this season.
“Every game I think we’re figuring out each other’s tendencies and that and a little more, and it’s great when you can play with a partner game after game,” said Kulak. “I think right now we’re feeding off each other pretty well. It’s going well. Our strengths play hand in hand with one another. Like I say, we’re just keeping it simple in our own zone, trying to play a hard game, just get the puck out of our own zone and stay out of trouble.”
The challenge for Kulak will be maintaining his consistency. Now that Nicklas Grossmann has been sent to the American Hockey League the Flames are carrying the customary seven defensemen, with four of them being left shots (Kulak, Mark Giordano, Jyrki Jokipakka and Brodie, who usually plays the right side). It’s likely that management hopes that Kulak doesn’t let complacency creep into his game as he adjusts to the reality of being an everyday NHLer at the tender age of 22. (For what it’s worth, Gulutzan has downplayed those concerns and doesn’t seem overly worried about Kulak becoming complacent, citing his serious nature and work ethic.)
It will also be interesting to see how Gulutzan utilizes Kulak going forward. With the Jokipakka/Dougie Hamilton tandem struggling at times over the past few games, Kulak and Engelland have seen their ice time increase as a result. If that pairing continues to have issues, we may see further tinkering by the coaching staff and it’ll be interesting to see whether Kulak’s high level of play can be maintained if his deployments and quality of competition change dramatically.
It’s probably a bit early to worry too much about Kulak and the expansion draft – though it would be a shame to lose an asset like him in such a way. For now, let’s just marvel at yet another Flames fourth round selection becoming a regular NHLer, and a useful one at that.