Over the past few years, the Calgary Flames have been quite lucky at the NHL Draft. Several of their recent selections – Sean Monahan, Sam Bennett and Matthew Tkachuk – jumped directly into the National Hockey League and have become contributors right away. Other picks have taken a less direct path, with Brett Kulak and Mark Jankowski being two of their most recent long-simmering prospects to make the jump to the bigs.
The biggest adjustment for these youngsters arguably isn’t getting used to playing against the best players in the world, but rather adjusting to playing different roles than they have in the recent past.
A pair of 2012 draft selections have, by all accounts, become everyday NHLers with the Flames this season.
The Flames’ 2012 first round selection Mark Jankowski is probably playing the least hockey, in terms of accumulated ice time, since he was a freshman at Providence College in 2012-13. But building upon his experience under his old head coach Nate Leaman, Jankowski’s adjusting to playing fewer minutes and not being leaned on for big time offensive contributions. The 23-year-old admitted that he’s looking at success in games a little differently than he did in college or the AHL.
“I think for me it’s just making an impact every shift,” said Jankowski. “In the past, it was probably a goal or assist or something. Obviously you still like to do that and help the team win, but I think winning faceoffs, playing good in the D-zone, a good two-way game. The faceoff thing’s something I’ve been gradually improving on throughout my time here… For me, it’s just trying to make an impact every shift and helping my team win.”
Jankowski’s teammate Brett Kulak, a fourth round pick, is a unique case. While Jankowski is getting his first real NHL action under his belt, Kulak has spent parts of three seasons with the big club and has already actually burnt off his Calder Trophy eligibility. The former Vancouver Giants stalwart spent the past two seasons wobbling between playing small minutes with the Flames and big minutes with the Stockton Heat, and notices big differences in the roles he’s been asked to play in each place.
“It’s a totally different game up here and I think, first and foremost, you have to be able to play lock-down, like great defense,” said Kulak. “Especially in the role I’m in right now, it’s a defense-first mentality and if I got room and I see a spot to jump into the play and create offense and just use my instincts in that area, I will, but it’s definitely a defense-first mentality.”
So far, Flames head coach Glen Gulutzan seems pleased with the results of his team’s newest young players. Jankowski only has eight games under his belt, but he’s increasingly being given more shifts and more favourable matchups – and he’s found himself in a dream assignment centering Jaromir freaking Jagr. For his part, Kulak is providing the exact type of steady, up-tempo defensive play that the team had hoped to get out of him, and he’s already matched last season’s point total (three) in a third as many games.
Gulutzan observed that getting used to doing the most you can with less ice time is the challenge faced by any young player in the NHL.
“That’s the progression for any young player, they’ve got to get used to the ice time,” said Gulutzan. “Especially coming from the minors where they’re playing 18, 20-something minutes a night, they’ve gotta keep that same intensity at 12, 14 minutes a night. That’s a challenge, it’s not easy, but the guys that do it that are young and [make] progress, they end up playing more minutes.”
For Jankowski and Kulak, their adjustments to the NHL game seem to be going so far, so good.