Photo Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

FlamesNation player evaluation: Brett Kulak

Aside from fellow 2012 pick Mark Jankowski, there may be no better recent story of internal drafting and development by the Calgary Flames than defenseman Brett Kulak. Selected in the fourth round of the 2012 NHL Draft, Kulak has progressed gradually from WHL standout to ECHL standout to AHL standout to fringe NHLer to, this past season, everyday NHL player.

A third pairing stalwart for the entire season, Kulak is good at everything but arguably not great at anything. In other words, he’s established himself as almost the ideal third pairing blueliner.

2017-18 season summary

After a 2016-17 campaign that saw him sit in the press box a lot during his NHL stint, Kulak was a healthy scratch for the first seven games of 2017-18 in favour of Matt “Bort” Bartkowski. But Kulak made his season debut on Oct. 21 and from then on only sat four times (two of those scratches were on the second half of back-to-backs). Needless to say, he grabbed hold of his opportunity and never really relinquished it. His play cemented himself as the undisputed sixth defender – in both ice time and other box-cars – as well as the undisputed third best left-shot defender in the organization.

Games played Goals Assists Points TOI/GP 5v5 CF% 5v5 CF% rel OZS% PDO
71 2 6 8 12:59 52.34% -2.28% 51.61% 0.986

Kulak played 71 games, a career high, and hit career highs in every other area. He played exclusively on the Flames’ third pairing, primarily with Michael Stone, though he moved up the rotation when TJ Brodie missed time at the end of the season with an injury. (Granted, it was the season’s garbage time, but Kulak looked good.)

Kulak was sheltered quite a bit, playing with the Flames’ third and fourth lines against the other team’s third and fourth lines – and other than Mark Giordano and Dougie Hamilton, he had the highest offensive zone start rate of any defender on the team. That said, he performed well: other than Giordano and Hamilton, he had the best Relative Corsi of any defenseman.

When you break down Kulak’s game to its two constituent elements, he’s arguably even more impressive. He was third among the team’s defensemen in Corsi For Per 60 Minutes (behind Giordano and Hamilton) and fourth in Corsi Against Per 60 Minutes (behind Giordano, Hamilton and Hamonic). He’s definitely sheltered, but his numbers have been very good in his role. He didn’t generate a lot of offense, but playing with the Flames’ bottom two lines generally wasn’t a recipe for offensive success this past season.

Kulak primarily played with Stone, but also played a bit with Hamonic – in the rare situations where Glen Gulutzan decided to split up Brodie and Hamonic – and seemed to do well. The (limited) data suggests that Kulak’s numbers were better away from Stone: +4% Relative Corsi away from him, compared to -0.6% with him.

Compared to last season

Kulak played 21 games in 2016-17 and wasn’t fully trusted as a third pairing regular, even though he had strong results when he did play with Deryk Engelland. This season, he was markedly better than Bartkowski and spent the whole season in the NHL, suiting up for 71 games. It was his first full year and he was essentially setting his baselines for his career, but given what he had to work with – Stone and the third and fourth lines – he did as well as he should’ve been expected to perform.

What about next season?

Kulak’s a pending restricted free agent. He’ll most likely be back and probably gets a modest raise from last season’s league minimum ($650,000) deal – he doesn’t have the offensive numbers on his side, but his progression and responsible play will get him a bump. Moreover, he’s likely a shoo-in to start on the third pairing, but depending on what happens elsewhere on the blueline he could move around, too.

It’s completely possible that Kulak is moved or replaced this summer, too. But he’s really inexpensive and versatile, so it’s likely that any blueline tinkering is done elsewhere and he’ll be bounced around to fill in the gaps.

#5 – Mark Giordano #7 – TJ Brodie
#8 – Chris Stewart #10 – Kris Versteeg
#11 – Mikael Backlund #13 – Johnny Gaudreau
#15 – Tanner Glass #18 – Matt Stajan
#19 – Matthew Tkachuk #20 – Curtis Lazar
#21 – Garnet Hathaway #23 – Sean Monahan
#24 – Travis Hamonic #25 – Nick Shore
#26 – Michael Stone #27 – Dougie Hamilton
#33 – David Rittich #36 – Troy Brouwer
#41 – Mike Smith #44 – Matt Bartkowski


          • Hockeysense9393

            Klimchuk had a break out season (hoping), Foo had a good bounce back. But playing Spooner in a very successful situation (with Andersson) just to most likely lose him to UFA? Wast of ice time…

          • piscera.infada

            “‘Good players’ stagnate under Huska, except for the ‘good players’ who are ‘too good’ to stagnate” is an absolutely ludicrous argument to make. Either he’s stalling the development of all offensive players as the above post implies, or he doesn’t. Which is it?

            Consistently moving the goalposts makes the argument even more absurd than it is on its face. If you’re going to say he hurts the development of all offensive prospects, then own it. Don’t say “well, except ‘x’ because he was clearly too good to be ruined’, or “except ‘y’, because he was already developed (to some arbitrary standard) prior to joining Stockton”. Both are laughable assertions.

            And more directly to your point, if a prospect is so bad as to be “underachieving” prior to the AHL, what makes you think they’re suddenly going to become better because the AHL coach has some kind of Midas-esque touch. None of them do. His job is to get the players he’s been given ready for the NHL. Taking into account standard attrition rates for NHL prospects, he’s objectively done so. Simply saying it’s not true for those players doesn’t make your point.

  • freethe flames

    This and signing Janko are two pieces of business that BT needs to get done and the soon the better.

    If as many of us speculate the Flames move Brodie for help up front, Kulak will need to take another step this year. Even if it is still as the 3rd pairing guy with Stone or stepping up to play with Hammonic. Even so the Flames will need to be exploring FA as a means of filling out their defensive unit unless of course one of Valimaki or Kylington is further ahead of where I think they are.

  • SgtRoadBlock

    The bigger thing we’re doing right now with the pro staff is going through each team and identifying trading partners.” – Flames’ VP of Hockey Operations Don Maloney…. aka Deer Hunting Time

    • freethe flames

      Which is what many of us are doing as we wait for something to happen. The management team and pro scouts have loads of information to deal with. Which is why I wish they would get their easy business done.

  • FL?MES

    Not a lot of love or dislike for Kulak judging by the lack of comments – indifference I guess. He was a fourth round pick, gets paid peanuts, did what was asked of him, and didn’t make many mistakes. We also don’t know what his ceiling is and there is a chance he could creep up the roster.

    I liked the sentence stating “Kulak is good at everything but arguably not great at anything.” The first guy I thought of after I read this was Hamonic. Which is kinda sad given what we paid to get him. This goes to show you why developing your own players is so important.

  • Oil consuming Flames

    Kulak has simply done what has been asked of him. We can’t know his ceiling at this point because he hasn’t been put in a position to show us more than he already has. Regardless of his potential ceiling, he is at least, a solid NHL 3rd pairing left D who can be signed to a team friendly deal.