With Monday’s signing of Brett Kulak, the Calgary Flames likely have all their NHL defenceman signed for the coming season. Kulak signed a one-year, $650,000 deal and enters training camp with his best chance yet to be a full-time NHLer. With their top five set in stone, the Flames have an obvious spot up for grabs in the number six hole. Based on the options available, it’s clear to me Kulak is the best fit for that open spot.
After Calgary acquired Travis Hamonic at the NHL Draft and re-signed Michael Stone a few days later, the defensive alignment became pretty clear. Barring injuries, the Flames will likely open the season looking like this:
Mark Giordano-Dougie Hamilton
T.J. Brodie-Travis Hamonic
All that’s left to be decided is Stone’s partner on the third pairing, with a few different options. Aside from Kulak, Calgary also has Matt Bartkowski under contract and a couple less likely options in Rasmus Andersson and unsigned RFA Tyler Wotherspoon. Let’s go through why Kulak is the clear winner in that group.
In 21 games with the Flames last year, Kulak was one of the team’s more effective defencemen. In a third pairing role, Kulak was solid defensively and didn’t spend a ton of time thrashing around in his own zone despite non-sheltered use. A quick glance at his underlying stats will flesh that out.
Among blueliners, only Hamilton and Giordano had better possession outputs, while Stone and Deryk Engelland were the only two players with more defensive starts than Kulak. Of course, that doesn’t mean Kulak should be thought of in the same breath as Calgary’s top pairing, primarily because he didn’t see anywhere near the same type of difficult competition. But, in a lesser role, Kulak did what he needed to do and did so as well or better than anyone else on the third pair.
Kulak’s impact can further be explained by looking at his most frequent partner’s results. Below are Engelland’s outputs with the four guys he played most with last season. Again, the results with Kulak in comparison are better across the board. For context, Engelland was playing much tougher competition when paired with Brodie, and that does impact the outputs.
Kulak’s underlying numbers were solid in 2016-17, and he passed my eye test as well. Kulak is a strong skater, which allows him to exit the zone quickly and get in a good position for neutral zone passes. While not the most physical, Kulak uses his skating well while defending and does an effective job suppressing opposing zone entries.
Finally, let’s not forget how cap-friendly Kulak’s contract is. Having an everyday player at $650,000 gives Calgary plenty of flexibility to make moves down the road. To have a third pairing carry a combined cap hit of $4.15 million is decent, even if you aren’t a fan of Stone’s $3.5 million AAV.
The other options
If not Kulak for the number six slot, then who? Well, the most likely candidate would be Bartkowski, after he was used in that role down the stretch and in the playoffs. When comparing the two head-to-head, though, Kulak holds a significant statistical edge
With very similar sample sizes, Kulak’s possession outputs were significantly better while starting far more shifts in the defensive zone than Bartkowski. I know head coach Glen Gulutzan has history with Bartkowski, but Kulak is superior across the board. Additionally, he’s the better skater and defends away from the puck just as well, even if Bartkowski plays with a little more of a physical bent.
I think Andersson has a chance to enter this conversation if he has a strong training camp and preseason. Andersson’s first season in the American League was solid, as he put up 22 points in 54 games last year and was one of Stockton’s best defencemen.
The Flames are high on the 2015 second round pick and he might be a training camp injury away from starting the season at the NHL level. However, there’s nothing wrong with Andersson spending another season primarily in the AHL, especially with older and more polished players like Kulak and Bartkowski vying for the six and seven slots on the big team.
As for Wotherspoon, and assuming he signs, his goal is a simple one: be the first guy on the list when it comes time for a recall. Wotherspoon has been surpassed on the team’s depth chart by Kulak and is a long shot to make the Flames out of camp. Instead, having a good showing in September and carrying that over to Stockton is probably the best he can hope for.
At 23, Kulak is young, affordable and has shown the chops to be an everyday NHL defencemen. With Calgary’s blueline so deep for the coming season, he’s a nice fit for a number six spot that should see somewhere between 12 and 14 minutes per game.
The Flames have other options if they see things differently, but all the evidence points to Kulak being the best bet. Actually, Bartkowski seems like a strong candidate as the team’s extra blueliner: he’s a little older at 29 and can passably step in in a pinch.
There’s one more factor to take into account, too. For the first time in his career, Kulak is waiver eligible. Whether you’re totally on board with my reasoning above or not, it still doesn’t make sense to expose a 23-year-old defenceman with NHL chops to the waiver wire.
When taking everything into account, two things become pretty clear. First, and this borders on non-negotiable, Kulak needs to start the season in the NHL. And, with a little more debate attached, Kulak should be in the opening night top six. We’ll see if the powers that be have a similar opinion.