The Flames‘ lack of adequate defencemen has plagued them all season. From starting the year off by having Mark Giordano, T.J. Brodie, and Dougie Hamilton all playing on different pairings to constantly insisting Dennis Wideman should be playing top four minutes contrary to any evidence whatsoever, things have been far less than ideal.
Matt Bartkowski probably isn’t going to be the solution to this problem, but at least he should help shake things up a bit.
In the meantime, though, the Flames were sitting at 14 forwards and nine defencemen, so somebody had to go down. That somebody was the waiver-exempt Brett Kulak.
It makes sense to send Kulak down at this time. Is he a bad defenceman? No, and the defence is probably worse without him – but he needs to play. Sitting at random isn’t doing any favours. Getting just 8:28 in ice time, as he did against the Flyers, isn’t either, really. Top minutes in the AHL are probably better at this stage of the game, especially if you’re just going to refuse to trust him to be an NHLer.
Is Kulak going to make mistakes? Yes, of course, everyone does. But it’s better to have a kid making mistakes that he can learn from than to have it come from veterans who are on their way out.
That said, this calls for the defence to look at least a little different from its usual setup:
There’s absolutely no reason to split up Giordano or Hamilton. If the game against the Flyers is any indication, then Wideman may have finally lost his spot in the top four, and Deryk Engelland can probably be slotted in alongside Brodie – far from ideal, but outside of actually giving Kulak a chance, there’s not much else that can be done there with the team’s current personnel.
Seeing as how Bartkowski is a left shot, he then likely takes Kulak’s spot rotating in and out of the lineup with Jyrki Jokipakka while Wideman plays alongside them – for now.
Bartkowski fills expansion requirements, so the Flames don’t really need to play him; on the other hand, Jokipakka has a 45.62% 5v5 CF this season – only Garnet Hathaway has a worse corsi among semi-regulars – so it’s not as though Bartkowski could be a whole lot worse. (He was 45.84% 5v5 CF player over 80 games with Vancouver, though, so it’s tight. He averaged 18:37 a game then; Jokipakka averages 14:26 now.)
This is not a complete defence. This certainly won’t be what it looks like next season, and perhaps not even two weeks from now, when we’ll finally be past the trade deadline.
Jokipakka could very well be on his way out, since there’s now no need to re-sign him to fill expansion requirements with Bartkowski signed for next season. And there’s always the chance the Flames find a way to upgrade their defence now, and hopefully be able to keep said upgrade for next season, too.
The build up to the trade deadline has been slow. There still may be plenty more to come. In the meantime, though, at least this is something, and it comes at no cost.
And don’t forget there’s no guarantee Bartkowski is in the NHL next season at all, particularly as he’s on a two-way deal – there would be no qualms about sending him to play in Stockton. If the Flames can’t find a way to make a long-term upgrade before the trade deadline, they’ll likely be on it after the expansion draft, which would mean Bartkowski would have to be that much better to stay in the big league.