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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
|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.