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Photo Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

Brett Kulak: Calgary’s ideal #6 defenceman

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.

Reasoning

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
??????-Michael Stone

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.

Conclusion

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.



  • Raffydog

    I can’t buy into the hype surrounding the Flames defence. All the “experts” and fans drooling over the defence are clearly delusional. Hamonic has been one of the worst defensemen in the league over the last few seasons, so why anybody thinks he’s gonna come here and suddenly turn into Scott Stevens is beyond me. He is basically Wideman 2.0, and I guarantee after the 20 game mark all the fans will be calling for his head. Take off your rose coloured glasses for a second and look at things objectively. Gio is another year older and slower. Hamilton is decent offensively, but can’t defend in his own zone. Brodie is a turnover machine, and is ridiculously easy to push off the puck. So tell me again how this is one of the best defences in the league.

    • TheoForever

      Yeah, it is much better to have #26 rated defense in the league like the oilers, and to completely depend on the goaltender like oil did last year. Completely delusional, to rank coil as favorites for anything else than being a playoff bubble team.

      • Raffydog

        I didn’t say anything about the Oilers, not sure where that came from, seems like you’re the one that can’t stop thinking about the Oilers, you might want to explore that obsession some time.Just saying the Flames defence isn’t that good, certainly not tops in the league.

        • TheoForever

          Gio/Hamilton had best stats of any pairing last year. So, how is that no good. Get into your head – BEST STATS, and it wasn’t close. Brodie with Stone was a very good pairing. It took a while for Brodie to adjust to playing LD, and he had some personal problems. In the couple years before, he was rated top 15 in the league. Funny how you think your uninformed opinion means more.

          • Raffydog

            None of that changes anything I just said. I don’t care about last year, it doesn’t make Gio any younger, or teach Hamilton to defend in his zone. And sure three years ago Brodie was good, but that doesn’t make him any bigger or stronger today, or any more capable of defending in his own end of the ice.

    • supra steve

      Yes, we know. All the “experts and fans” are dolts, Raffydog is the one who sees clearly.
      Sometimes it’s easier to just agree with a 5 year old and send him off to bed than it is to argue the facts, because you already know the 5yr old won’t listen to any differing opinions.

    • Jessemadnote

      “Brodie is a turnover machine”
      Okay let’s see. TJ Brodie had 76 giveaways and Klefbom had 67. Okay, Brodies slightly worse in that regard, but Brodie also had 57 takeaways to Klefbom’s 29. So by that metric Brodie definitely has better puck management than Klefbom. He’s a better passer, better skater, better possession stats and I’d be pretty confident saying overall Brodie is better than Klefbom. So our number 3 defender is better than your number 1 defender. That’s why we have one of the best defences in the league.

    • Jumping Jack Flash

      I will take your opinion over those pesky experts every time. Your years of TV watching, you tubing, and blogging has convinced me. Thanks for enlightening us.

  • Craigster

    I can see us trading Wotherspoon for a RW prospect/pick this year as there doesn’t appear to be any room for him. We also need to recoup some of the picks in the next two drafts, and the quickest way I see us getting those back (and get some cap space) is to eventually trade Gio. I hope there is a prospect or two that really shine this camp to force Tre’s hand. I don’t think we can expect a prospect to move into that position, but to move Brodie up, and have one of the kids take his place with Hamonic.

    • wot96

      I don’t think the rest of the league has seen Wotherspoon enough to attach value to him or they have seen enough to attach not much value to him. I don’t see Spoon as much of an asset that another team will pursue. As a chip that is tossed in to complete the deal, he may not even have much value even on a value contract as that likely means the counter-party has to pick up another NHL contract. Maybe they can, maybe they can’t. In any event, if you are trading straight across, I don’t think the Flames get much of a return on RW for Spoon.

      • HOCKEY83

        Gio would be a tough trade at his salary and term left. I think the flames are so high on him by the time they get rid of him they will be paying a team to take him off their hands.

      • HOCKEY83

        I think you’re right there is no real value for prospects like Wotherspoon but not because other teams have not seen who he is or what he’s about. other teams scouts know all the prospects in this league. He’s just not worth anything because he’s not worth anything. No great value there other than if you’re lucky he can fill in at 6 spot if needed.

  • OYYC

    Kulak is a great fit for Stone. Last year Stone was the stay behind guy while Brodie did his thing up the ice. This year, Stone figures to join the rush to a greater extent and then unload the bomb that he has from the blueline. Still say that Stone is a 4D on many teams and he’ll be a pleasant surprise on the bottom pairing. He’s also a player who can move up if necessary.

    Hamonic figures to be the toughest guy on the blueline now, which is a bit of a concern. Engelland had his faults as a defender, but you knew he’d drop the gloves with anyone. Hopefully Brodie and Hamonic mesh right away.

    Josh Healey (left handed shot) seems to be a forgotten man. He might be in the call-up conversation later on in the year if defensive toughness is a glaring problem and when there’s an injury. Curious to see how well he can play at the next level, but a short video of him blowing up opponents in college is pretty to watch.

      • OYYC

        Raffydog: Normally you are a shining light of unbridled optimism! Today, not so much.

        If someone stole the jam out of your doughnut, post a description and the entire Network will drop everything and help you catch them.

        • Raffydog

          I know it’s hard to believe sometimes, but I love the the Flames, been cheering them on since I can remember. Just think everbody needs to stop gushing about how great our defence is. Been listening to this same song and dance going on 3 years now, and each year has been the same results, a porous, Swiss cheese defence that’s soft as a marshmallow on a hot summer day. Believe me, I get no pleasure out of this, and nothing would make me happier than to be proven wrong, but until I see the improvements on the ice, I maintain that this defence is highly overrated, and way overhyped

          • Southboy

            Although i strongly disagree with the soft defense part, i am a bit on board with you on lets see them play before we claim them tops in the leauge. Yes Gio and Hamilton were an unreal pair last year, but even than we still gave up way to many HDSC. ‘High danger scoring chances. Part of this i believe was our inability to play sound ‘team defense’ yes we believe our defense is unreal because we love our team. But in restrospect if Brodie was as good as ‘we’ claim he is, he would elevate regardless of who he played with, atleast to a point where he wasnt a detriment to our team. Again, i believe we have an unreal defense on paper, but if we dont show it on the ice ‘ which has been the case for 3 years, than it is all just talk in the hot days of August

          • Jumping Jack Flash

            Yup…any player could regress next year…. Hard to predict these things. Kinda like predicting McD will break his hand punching the end boards again. Not buying that your a Flames fan.

          • BurningSensation

            I’d say you are empirically wrong.

            The Flames already boasted an excellent top 3, with Hamilton and Gio being toast of the league and Bodie an elite DMan lugging around the corpse if Dennis Wideman. Now with another legit top pairing defender in Hamonic, and an excelent platoon of youngsters ready to break in on the 3rd pair, it’s one of, if not the, best D in the league. Objectively.

          • OKG

            “it’s one of, if not the, best D in the league. Objectively.”.

            It has that potential. But Hamonic could flop (his analytics were not good recently), Stone could flop(even with Brodie his corsi wasn’t great), and Bartkowski could have that #6 spot handed to him irrationally. Then it’d be a disappointment.

  • BringtheFire 2.0

    Man, if a part of Tre’s of plan to deal with Edmonton involves stifling Connor with a total team defensive game-plan that can be sustained for multiple seasons with excellent drafting and prospect development, I gotta say…

    …he’s on the right track!

  • Heat2017

    He is restricted so has no other options but Calgary or Europe but seeing him and kulak play in Stockton I would say if Wotherspoon signs he would win the six spot

      • wot96

        You have been very strident in your support of players that others have written off, or down, and you have been right. Why do you think Healey is better than Bartkowski? Bartkowski has played in the NHL and while I think that reflects the lack of defensive depth on the teams he played for rather than his skill set, Healey is still unproven. I guess the better way to put it is what do you see in Healey that the rest of us should warm up to?

        • OKG

          I saw a lot of confidence and polish along with great skating and a strong physical game. I’m not saying we’ve got a star player here but if we needed someone to step into the #6 spot with an injury to Kulak or Wotherspoon, Healey can do the one thing that Bartkowski can’t – handle the puck and make a pass. I think we quietly replaced Brandon Hickey with a similar tier of prospect (note though: I wasn’t super high on Hickey like some)

          • wot96

            Fair enough. What I like about him, and I haven’t seen him much, is that he looks like he is entirely prepared to step up and nail someone. I would not call Calgary’s D soft, but they aren’t particularly punishing. Any D that can learn to pick his spots and do it clean so as not to disadvantage his team, should be an asset even in the 6/7 role.

      • Trevy

        Can’t wait to actually see what Healy can bring at this level. If he demonstrates some true potential, we’re going to have a sick amount of depth on defense

        • Carl the tooth

          The addition of valimaki really put us over the top . Can you say a kid in a candy store! Wow what a difference a couple good drafting years can do , can’t wait ! Flames should totally dominate the prospect tournament

  • Just.Visiting

    looked like he was top 6 worthy last year, so the usage was troubling.

    The sleeper to watch out of camp is Valimaki. It appears that might have the most solid all round game of the D prospects already, and I think that a sheltered minutes role with Stone as a partner could surprise.

    If that were to transpire, Kulak would be the 7, as he would be unlikely to clear waivers. He’d then roll into the lineup for the inevitable injuries that arise.

  • Kevin R

    Patty, doesn’t Andersson play the wrong side & maybe Kulak’s competition is Kylington? Or do you not think Kylington is ready to challenge this year? How about Valimaki, you think there is any chance this kid could make a case for a 9 game audition before being sent to the CHL? What if he does & plays so well he sticks?

    Wotherspoon certainly seems to have been leapfrogged on the chart. But his AHL numbers say he should have a better shot at challenging for a spot on the Flames. Heck, he never even made the top 20 list. Does he have any trade value & the reason the Flames qualified him was to use him as a trade chip? He hasn’t signed yet, perhaps he really wants a chance to go to a team that is crying for almost ready D to challenge their bottom pairing? Sorry for all the questions, just curious & trying to understand why Wotherspoon would even want to resign in Calgary.

    • T&A4Flames

      I don’t think TSpoon has many other options to sign unless he sees over seas hockey as an option. I wouldn’t sleep on Spoon anyway. So many have written him off but I wouldn’t be surprised if he is the one to crack the roster. Either way, put he and Kulak as #6 and #7 and waive Bart. I doubt he gets claimed and can be available for a quick call up or possible trade during the season when inevitably teams begin to suffer injuries on the back end.

    • Jobu

      Kylington wont play until he cleans up his turnover problem. Needs at least 1 more year in the A to figure it out.
      We have a lot of time to wait out Valimaki to align when the other Pro contracts are expiring.
      T-Spoon will be an up and down 7th D-man again this year and likely wont be re-signed in the off-season. He likely resigned because the Flames can still use him at practice and for the odd game, and he knew it was a long shot to be signed anywhere else.
      Andersson will be an injury call-up as needed. The kid is still growing into the pro game and needs to play significant minutes.

    • cjc

      I think he was suggesting that Andersson would play if a RHD went down in the preseason. Valimaki could get his audition, but he’d have to blow the doors off. More likely he goes back to the Dub (that way his ELC slides).

      Wotherspoon’s AHL numbers say he is at best a replacement level defender. AHL D who put up numbers similar to his rarely turn into bona fide NHLers and almost never become impact players. Wotherspoon’s choices are sign to league minimum or try overseas (the KHL season has already started).

  • Cam Notlaw

    Kulaks were wealthy farmers in Russia and the Ukraine, many of which were dispossessed of their farms by the Soviets. Hopefully, the Flames regime does not dispossess Kulak out of the 6th spot and he keeps all of his chickens in a row.

  • The Doctor

    I thought Batkowski looked mostly terrible last year, with the occasional flash of competence. Could some smart person out there please explain why he’s on the roster, especially when we’re loaded with promising defensive prospects?

      • The Doctor

        Thanks. I pray that your prediction pans out. There were way too many times last year when I had white knuckles watching him play, just getting dominated by the other team. Like Wideman without the offensive upside.

        • Kevin R

          For expansion draft purposes, we needed a D that was signed for the following year. Hence Bart was signed to a 2 way deal for this upcoming season. It was either him or we extended Wideman. Pick your poison. Bart will be given a chance in training camp as he should be, but make no mistake, he will “clear” waivers when the roster is to be trimmed down.

    • Cfan in Van

      He’s being payed by the Flames, but he’s by no means on the ’17-18 roster yet. Gotta wait for training camp and pre-season, to see if he’s the 7th D in Calgary or not. Probably in a “leadership roll” down in Stockton like Vey was last year.

      • TheoForever

        I’m very curious how Flames d will shape up in few years. I would assume that Gio will never be traded, and Flames will keep Hamilton for a long time too. So in order of trades it would be Stone, Hamonic, Brodie.
        This would make space for Andersson, Valimaki, and one of Kylington/Fox (one stays and the other traded).
        Any thoughts?

          • TheoForever

            If you can make millions playing hockey, something you love doing, Harvard may take a backseat. When Butcher was at U of Denver, he was told that Colorado had little interest in him, so I’m not surprised he decided to stick it to them.
            We do have Johnny, he can have a talk with Fox.
            However, If Flames think, they cannot sign him, then he will be traded.
            Fox has 3 more years at Harvard, two years in and he will be a huge name, so we can get good assets.

          • freethe flames

            This worry about NCAA guys jumping ship is overblown. The Flames top 3 NCAA prospects over the last few years have signed: Johnny/Gilles/Janko. They may have to burn part of his ELC like they did with Johnny but I suspect it will get done. He plays the next 2 years at Harvard and then signs at the end of his 3rd season would be my guess.

            Theo- I already posted my Flames D transition for the next 3 years. What is you take?