Brett Kulak is a really good development success story for the Flames. Once thought of as somewhat of a “project”, the 2012 fourth round pick is coming off his first season spent entirely in the NHL. At 24, Kulak has proven he belongs in the NHL full-time as he heads into summer contract negotiations. As such, the pending RFA is very much deserving of his first one-way NHL deal.
Today’s breakdown of Kulak’s contract situation serves as our second free agent profile this summer; we took a closer look at pending RFAs Jon Gillies and David Rittich last week. In Kulak’s case, he has a decent amount of leverage heading into the summer, at least as far as RFA depth defencemen go.
Kulak played 71 games with the Flames last season and, in reality, it probably should have been more. For whatever reason, Calgary’s coaching staff opted to dress Matt Bartkowski in favour of Kulak for the first seven games of the season. To no one’s surprise, Kulak proved to be the superior option almost immediately upon being inserted into the lineup and never really looked back. Despite seeing the least ice time of Calgary’s blueline corps, Kulak is coming off a solid campaign.
There’s no question Mark Giordano and Dougie Hamilton were head and shoulders above the rest, but there’s an argument to be made that, in his role, Kulak was the team’s’ third most effective defenceman last year. Granted, there needs to be context applied to that statement, as Kulak’s matchups weren’t as difficult as those of Travis Hamonic or TJ Brodie. Still, as a third pairing guy, there wasn’t a lot to dislike from Kulak’s 2017-18 campaign.
It’s probably most useful to compare Kulak to Stone and Bartkowski as their usage was very similar. When looking at both the underlying numbers and the eye test, it’s clear Kulak was the best of that bunch last season.
Kulak’s greatest strength is his skating, which is something he’s used to his advantage more and more. As his comfort level has grown, Kulak has become more confident in skating the puck out of his own zone and jumping into the rush. Yes, he’s not overly physical, but Kulak’s gaps are solid and he angles well, which helps him suppress entries effectively.
On the other hand, I’m not sure how high Kulak’s ceiling will end up being. While he put up solid offensive totals in his latter junior years and in the ECHL, we haven’t seen much in that regard at either the AHL or NHL level. We also haven’t seen him consistently play against top six opposition, which serves as a question mark going forward.
A NEW DEAL
While we’re not talking about a player on the cusp of a long-term deal, I do think Kulak has done enough to be rewarded with a little stability on his next contract. Kulak is coming off a one-year, two-way deal that carried a $675,000 cap hit and he’s done enough to get a bump across the board.
There’s plenty of value to having Kulak in the fold going forward, even knowing he’s due a raise going into next season. Because his offensive totals are relatively low, Kulak’s next deal will probably keep him under the $1 million mark annually. To have a capable and consistent defender at that price is important for Calgary’s cap going forward, which is why something longer than a one-year pact makes sense.
Something in the range of two or three years at around $900,000 per season on a one-way deal makes a lot of sense here. The Flames can be comfortable Kulak will give them decent, consistent minutes, even if there’s a plateau in the next few years. And, because he doesn’t demand a big price tag at this point, there’s plenty of flexibility if he’s overtaken on the depth chart.
Kulak is a homegrown product that gives Calgary exactly what a team needs from a depth defenceman: reliable minutes at a low price tag. While it never made a lot of sense to sign Stone to a three-year deal at $3.5 million to play on the third pair, signing Kulak to a contract similar to what’s mentioned above seems like a really solid investment.