Photo Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

FlamesNation Player Evaluation: Brett Kulak

Brett Kulak has quietly become the Calgary Flames’ secret weapon. He’s a weapon in the sense that the 23-year-old has quietly put up impressive underlying numbers on the third pairing in each of the past two seasons. He’s a secret in the sense that he spent half the season on the Flames’ roster but didn’t really play all that much.

Kulak never played better hockey than he did in 2016-17. He also never played less hockey than he did this past season, and he’s at an interesting crossroads as the days run down on his entry-level deal. Because of the impending expansion draft, he’s likely in “move up or move out” territory.

2016-17 season summary

For the second straight season, Kulak made the Flames’ opening night roster out of training camp. While he was an injury replacement for T.J. Brodie in 2015-16, he flat-out made the team this season. Then he eventually lost his spot as it was determined they wanted him to actually play rather than sitting as the seventh defender.

Kulak was sent down to the farm on Dec. 7 after being scratched 12 times. He had three assists before he went down. He came back up on Jan. 9 and stuck around for five weeks, being scratched nine times. He was sent back to the farm and, after missing a chunk of time with a minor injury, he helped drive the Stockton Heat into the playoffs with some strong play on their top defensive pairing. All told: he played 21 games in the NHL, was a healthy scratch 21 times in the NHL, and played 22 times in the AHL.

Compared to last season

If your hope was for Kulak to transition into being an NHLer eventually, this past season was probably a key step in that direction as he played more (and spent more time on the roster) in the NHL than he did the previous year. He also played less hockey in the AHL than he did previously, but put up better numbers.

All told, Kulak generated the first three assists of his NHL career in 2016-17 – including a pair of assists in a single game – and his points-per-game in the AHL upticked from 0.29 in 2015-16 to 0.45.

Because he didn’t play a ton, his rolling possession chart (via Corsica.hockey) doesn’t say much beyond his possession numbers were in the black all season:

Considering he was used in a complementary role on the third pairing, numbers north of 50% sound pretty good.

Most common linemates

As a third pairing option, Kulak basically played with a mixture of all sorts of players. But he got a lot of results, all things considered.

Kulak saw his possession numbers dragged down by Matt Stajan, Sam Bennett and Troy Brouwer. His presence saw the possession numbers of basically everyone else he played with improve, including Deryk Engelland (his most common linemate) and most of the team’s best forwards. (If you’re read our evaluations, it’s probably not shocking to learn that Brouwer was a net-negative contributor to his teammates’ possession numbers.)

The divergence of results between the team’s lesser lights and everyone else suggests that Kulak was, at worst, carryable, and perhaps he was a difference-maker in his teammates’ performances. (For the curious, he mostly played with Kayle Doetzel and Rasmus Andersson in Stockton.)

What’s next?

Kulak is a pretty good young defensemen. He’s arguably grown past the point where he should be in the AHL. He should be an NHL full-timer next season based on his performances at both levels over the past couple seasons. He’s eligible for selection in the expansion draft, so the odds are looking good that he will be an NHLer in 2017-18.

Time will tell if that’ll be in Calgary or Las Vegas.

#1 – Brian Elliott #5 – Mark Giordano
#6 – Dennis Wideman #7 – T.J. Brodie
#10 – Kris Versteeg #11 – Mikael Backlund
#13 – Johnny Gaudreau #17 – Lance Bouma
#18 – Matt Stajan #19 – Matthew Tkachuk
#23 – Sean Monahan #25 – Freddie Hamilton
#26 – Michael Stone #27 – Dougie Hamilton
#29 – Deryk Engelland #31 – Chad Johnson
#36 – Troy Brouwer #39 – Alex Chiasson
#44 – Matt Bartkowski