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Photo Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

Kulak leads the pack forging everyday NHL careers

More than halfway through this season, Brett Kulak looks like an NHLer. He leads a group of four Flames players who all started the season having never been NHL regulars, yet are now knocking on the door to full-time work. It’s a credit to Calgary’s organizational depth and, if things continue in a similar manner, these four players present effective, low cost options over the next few years.

For the purpose of this piece, I’m omitting players like Andrew Mangiapane, Marek Hrivik, and Ryan Lomberg due to their sample sizes. The four players we are focusing on all have at least 26 games under their belt this season, giving us a decent body of work to evaluate. So who are we talking about? And how close are we to declaring each player a bona fide NHL regular?

BRETT KULAK

It took him eight games to get into the lineup at the start of the season, but since that point, Kulak really hasn’t looked back as an everyday member of Calgary’s blueline. There’s no reason that should change, either, for a couple reasons.

Kulak is clearly an upgrade on Matt Bartkowski on the team’s third pairing, which seems to be the opinion of the coaching staff as well. Bartkowski has only played six of the team’s last 42 games and, at 29 years old, is just fine as a seventh defenceman.

More importantly, though, Kulak has proven to be effective in his time with the Flames. After holding his own in spot duty last season, Kulak has remained steady in a much more regular role this year. In fact, for a second straight campaign, he’s one of Calgary’s top three possession defenders.

Season GP CF% Rank OZS% Rank
2017-18 39 51.1 3rd 50.7 4th
2016-17 21 50.6 3rd 45.7 7th

Only Mark Giordano and Dougie Hamilton have posted better five-on-five shot rates than Kulak over the last two seasons, granted with significantly different roles. Kulak is a third pair guy, which means his ice time is limited (12:36 average) and he’s facing mainly opposing third and fourth lines.

In his role, though, Kulak has done the job. He skates well and is getting more confident using that ability to get out of trouble and move the puck up ice. Kulak is decent defensively and, importantly, doesn’t spend a lot of time in his own zone.

The next big step for Kulak will be developing his game at other end of the ice; at the All Star break, Kulak has zero goals in 67 NHL games. Even if things don’t improve dramatically offensively, if Kulak can maintain what he’s shown thus far, he’ll have a spot in this league as an affordable, effective defenceman.

MARK JANKOWSKI

Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

Give Jankowski credit, because since being recalled and placed in the lineup for Calgary’s ninth game of the season, he hasn’t sat as a healthy scratch once. As a rookie playing centre, that’s not an easy task, and Jankowski has solidified himself as the team’s number three man on the depth chart.

CF% Rank OZS% Rank
50.4 12th 58.5 2nd

As you can see, the coaching staff has gone pretty easy on Jankowski in his first season. Only Jaromir Jagr has seen a higher ratio of offensive zone starts, which makes it slightly less impressive to see Jankowski just barely a positive possession player. His two-way game is definitely a work in progress, which is to be expected, but Jankowski’s offensive games has really popped.

Five-on-five Overall
G60 Rank P60 Rank G60 Rank P60 Rank
0.89 3rd 1.66 5th 0.84 5th 1.57 7th

Thanks to Natural Stat Trick, I ranked Jankowski’s scoring rates both five-on-five and including the powerplay, as he’s started seeing more time on the man advantage over the last number of weeks. Jankowski is one of Calgary’s most efficient offensive players and we’ve seen him display his high level finishing ability a number of times this season.

Jankowski is similar to Kulak in that he’s proven he can hang in the NHL on an everyday basis, but in a limited role. There’s nothing wrong with that at all, but for Jankowski to start climbing the depth chart, his work defensively, and more importantly, his cycle/possession game are two areas he’ll have to work on. The good news is, he looks smart and skilled enough to make that happen.

GARNET HATHAWAY

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Of all the players we’re focusing on, Hathaway’s work this season might be the most surprising, at least for me. I won’t lie, I wasn’t expecting much at all when the Flames recalled him at the end of November, but he’s impressed, especially compared to what we saw last year.

Season GP CF% Rank OZS% Rank P60 Rank
2017-18 26 52.9 8th 53.7 7th 1.7 4th
2016-17 26 44.3 24th 32.0 22nd 1.3 10th

Yes, he had the second lowest offensive zone start ratio on the team last season, which partially explained his underwhelming possession rate. But at no time did Hathaway show signs of being anything more than a replacement level player for me, despite his ability to agitate and get under the skin of opposing players.

This year has been a different story. After a strong start in Stockton, Hathaway has done well in a different role and currently sits fourth on the team in five-on-five points-per-60. He’s been a solid fit on a line with Jankowski and Sam Bennett, has shown offensive abilities I wasn’t aware he possessed, and has even developed into a functional penalty killer.

What’ll be really interesting to see is whether Hathaway can remain effective as the season goes along. He’s now equaled his high mark for NHL games in a season at 26 and certainly dipped as his time went along last season. So far this year, though, Hathaway has opened the door to being a full-timer and not looking back.

DAVID RITTICH

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A couple weeks ago we highlighted how good the tandem of Rittich and Mike Smith has been this season, but today let’s focus on what we’ve seen specifically from the former half. Yes, Smith has been the biggest part of why the Flames have had league-best goaltending, but Rittich has played his part, too.

Just like Smith has been one of the NHL’s best starting goaltenders, Rittich has been one of the league’s top understudies. In seven appearances, Rittich is 4-1-2 and has impressive save percentage totals. Below is a look at how those totals stack up against the other top backups in the league.

Rank Player SV% Rank Player EVSV%
1 Carter Hutton 0.943 1 Carter Hutton 0.948
2 Darcy Kuemper 0.943 2 Michal Neuvirth 0.944
3 David Rittich 0.929 3 Ryan Miller 0.943
4 Ryan Miller 0.929 4 Darcy Kuemper 0.939
5 Juuse Saros 0.926 5 David Rittich 0.936

From a numbers perspective, Rittich is one of the best backup goalies in the league, which correlates with what we’ve seen on the ice. Rittich has looked solid, calm, and composed in the crease and, most importantly, looks like he belongs in the league.

I think he’s earned a spot as Calgary’s backup for the rest of the season, which is a positive development. Even more promising might be what Rittich can be for this team in the future, though. Goaltenders are notoriously hard to project, but is it out of the question to suggest he might enter the conversation to replace Smith? The fact I can credibly ask that shows how positive Rittich’s work has been thus far.



  • supra steve

    You never know how a tender from the AHL will perform when brought up to the big league…but a lot of us had penciled in Rittich as the backup in CGY after Smith was acquired in June…then Tre acquired Eddie Lack. I didn’t understand it then, still don’t.

    Several veteran tenders have been moved this season for bargain basement prices, so if Rittich hadn’t worked, they could have had a Lack quality backup cheaply. I know you don’t want to just go handing out NHL jobs to unproven kids, but you need to make sure that the kids get the chance to grab a spot if they perform in camp. Lack blocked that possibility, and he certainly never proved to be worthy of the spot he was given/did not earn.

    • Flames fan since 83

      I have to disagree with your perspective that the Flames are blocking young talent. It’s simply not the case.
      Lack was brought in as an extra layer of insurance at very low cost. (Kegan Kanzig and Huricanes retaining 50% of salary).
      Yes it didn’t work out, and then we (Flames) had to go to plan B. Bring up someone from the Minors. I think it’s good to have a plan A, B, C etc.
      Truthfully, Rittich is plan C! Gillies was in fact the plan B.
      In hindsight, the Flames have not blocked any of the above players (Kulak, Janks, Hath or Rittich). And Mangipaine, Lomberg and Hrivik are more examples of opportunities given/earned.

      • supra steve

        Rittich outplayed Gillies all of last season, so why does anyone think that he was plan B? I know a lot of people shared this view last summer, but frankly, they didn’t pay attention to the play of the tenders in Stockton last season.

        I have been greatly satisfied with the advancement of young players in the organization this season, but the fact that Lack was anyone’s plan A was just…well it turned out just about exactly as many of us suspected it would. Was it worth the gamble for the low price that was paid…obviously I don’t think it was.

        • Flames fan since 83

          Rittich was a plan C when they retained him in the 2016-17 season!
          He maybe (up for debate) turned into a plan B this year, but at the start of last year, Rittich was Plan C!

        • Flames fan since 83

          A good manager has back up plans. Lack didn’t turn out but worth the gamble in my opinion. Jagr will not turn out, but worth the gamble IMO.
          Jankowski, Johnny, Brodie, Gio are all examples, in thier own way, of gambles that worked. Even Rittich was a gamble and looks like he is turning out good.
          Steve, you should just belly ache about the real issues, like Brouwer, GG’s player usage, PP and leave these petty issues to the sideline. IMO.

    • BendingCorners

      It wasn’t obvious last summer that Rittich was ready and goaltenders were disappearing from the market rather quickly. To me the Lack acquisition was prudent and didn’t cost anything significant. Neither did getting rid of him, so overall it has worked out well.

    • oilcanboyd

      An interview with Chad Johnson when the Sabres blew into town last week says the Flames had offered him a contract after July 1st, but that he was already considering offers from other teams.

      so Rittich was 3rd choice for backup…

  • Off the wall

    I’ve been really impressed with Kulak. He’s been great as our #6 defence, although the numbers seem to indicate he’s been better than what we’re crediting him for. I’m not worried about his offence, it will come in time.
    Right now, he’s proven his value to our team.

    Jankowski, he’s a first year centre, learning the game at an extremely high tempo. I am impressed with his body of work. He’s an extremely smart player and I don’t know wherein his ceiling lies.
    One thing is definitive, he’s made the transition far easier for Bennett playing LW.
    For him to be used as a PK and at times on the PP, speaks more to his abilities than we credit him for. He’s a beauty!

    I know some won’t agree, however I see Hathaway as an improvement overall. His PK is top notch. We need to use him more in this area. His agitating style is a great fit for us, and he’s proven very useful at it.

    Rittich, a gem in disguise.
    I honestly believed the Flames were going to go with Gillies as the backup,but I’m glad we gave Rittich his due. He’s been steady and I love his competitive spirit.
    His stick splintering after our 3 on 3 loss (later reversed) was a thing to behold. Rittich hates losing. I love that.

    Overall I’m pretty impressed with our group. We are a young team in terms of new additions, but I’m happy with our prospects transition to the NHL.

    • FlamesFanOtherCity

      Unfortunately, Wotherspoon has not had the same opportunity as Bart or Kulak. Spoon and Kulak has similar camps, Spoon better than Bart, yet we are using Spoon as a top defender in the AHL. Bart isn’t even an option in a B2B now.
      There’s still a disconnect between Gully’s perception of the AHL talent and where they fit in the NHL.

  • freethe flames

    Interesting that all of them are RFA’s next season. What would people do with each of them? I personally would like to see longer term deals for Kulak and Janko if possible; pay a little more for next the next two years but save money down the road. Rittich a 2 year deal and I would be okay with Hathaway on a 1 year deal.

    • everton fc

      Agreed. Lock them in now, cheap. Kulak is potentially better than a #6. Jankowski will score 20 goals. Rittich for 2 years, then he potentially takes the reigns from Smith and gets a good long-term deal, if he is everything I think he is. Hathaway will always get 1-2 year terms.

      I can’t wait to see more of Lomberg up here. And get our first look at Klimchuk, in a Flames jersey.

      • BendingCorners

        Not keen on Lomberg. The fight against Kassian was fun but he’s an AHLer not an NHLer.
        Rittich and Jankowski though, both are keepers and signing them longer term is a good idea.
        I like Kulak but I’d rather see the second pair upgraded enough that Kulak becomes our #7; I don’t really see him as a second-pair guy at all.
        Hathaway is 26 (normally a peak on the age curve) and is having a career year, in a contract year. I like the idea of signing him for 2-4 more years, but as Brouwer’s fourth line replacement not as a top-nine guy.
        Maybe I’m just an odd mix of optimism and pessimism, but I’m still hoping that BT (this year or next) will find the missing pieces – a top-six winger and a defensively sound second pair D-man – so that the over-achievers – Kulak and Hathaway – can be positioned to excel lower in the lineup.

        • Off the wall

          I completely understand what you’re saying.
          I too, believe Lomberg is in not in our long term future. Great energy guy, presently giving him a look- – but not sure he’s ideal for anything beyond AHL. Maybe I’m wrong, but I just don’t see it either.

          Isn’t our 2nd pair defence already upgraded? Brodie-Hamonic .
          I doubt Kulak is slated for anything higher than #5/6.
          I think it would be a waste if he was going to be our #7.

          With a plethora of future D prospects, it becomes even more clouded in terms of what our future defensive core may eventually look like.

          We may see some trades in a few years to open up the gates for these kids.

          Presently, we need to focus on giving our prospects who have transitioned to the NHL, support and time.

          • BendingCorners

            Yes, BT tried to upgrade the second pair, but it isn’t working very well. Except for a few games here and there, they’ve been underwater even though moderately sheltered. Further tinkering required.

  • Korcan

    For commenters arguing the Flames should let Backlund walk (instead of paying him big $) because he can be replaced by Janko, this piece should help dispel that line of thinking. Does Mark have the potential to replace Backs? Yes, but not yet. In 3 – 6 years (after Backlund’s next contract expires) Janko’s our guy, but IMO Tre would be nuts to let one of the league’s best shutdown, two-way centermen go at this time, especially if he can retain him for around $5M per.

    • BendingCorners

      I don’t think BT will let Backlund walk unless he asks for 7×7 and refuses to budge. I agree on the timeline for Janko, but think it will be closer to three years than six.

    • Off the wall

      I understand your concern. I feel the same way about Backlund.
      He’s not easily replaceable at this point and he’s proven his value to the team.

      However, I believe our fans greatest concerns isn’t just the money or term, (although it’s still important) but a NMC or NTC attached to his contract that would affect our long term plans.

      I trust Treliving and his negotiation strategies. One thing that stands out to me, is his respect and family like approach to each individual on our team.
      That can’t be underestimated.

      It fosters mutual respect come negotiation time. Treliving will get this done, and once again we’ll be praising him for a job well done!

    • Flames fan since 83

      I think Tre’s strength is re-signing RFA’s to Fair contracts. Hopefully he can translate his skills to a UFA that is a current player on our team.
      Backlund (for the right price) would slot in as a terrific 3rd line centre, if/when Janko steps up to 2nd line centre. Calgary will be set for the next 4-5 years down the middle. Not to mention Dube on the way in a couple of years.

    • Trevy

      No one is saying to let Backlund walk because he can be replaced by Janko. It all comes down to finances, the future of signings in the likes of a Tkachuk/Ferland and what Backs is asking for. If cooler heads prevail and we settle in at $5 x 5.5 x 5 yrs, then it’s a win win for all. If he insists on more and for longer, you do not jeopardize the future of the team for one player who will ultimately become a 3rd line center in a few years. That’s just not smart business and not to compare, but we don’t need relive another Stajan scenario in the future

      • BendingCorners

        We already have a second Stajan scenario with Brouwer so I understand where you’re coming from. Trading Backlund however (and I assume in June not at the TDL) leaves a hole that will not be filled in the next 2-3 years – Dube or Jankowski could eventually perhaps but not anytime soon, and the Flames have no other good prospects at C and no high draft pick this year. The only way a trade does anything other than close the Flames window before it fully opens is if there is a team willing to to send two high picks and a nearly ready C prospect in exchange. I don’t see that happening so I don’t see a trade happening. Even if Backlund’s ask is very high, I think BT pays it.

  • aye

    Speaking of graduating prospects, Foo has been really good now becoming the go-to guy for the Heat since all the call-ups left a huge void in Stockton’s offense, and after pulling a Sam Bennett to start the season, is now up to 12 goals and 12 assists on the year. Maybe he should get a shot at 3RW sometime this season. Hathaway is really better suited on the 4th line.