As of this writing, Brett Kulak has been through his arbitration hearing: the first Flame to have gone that far in the process since Lance Bouma in 2015. Bouma, then, was a depth player coming off of a shooting percentage-inflated season and very quickly proved not worth the three-year deal he received before the arbitrator handed down their ruling; Kulak, now, is a depth player the Flames are focusing on re-signing for cheap.
And when you go through the Flames’ defensive depth chart, it’s pretty easy to see why: Kulak can help the team, but he isn’t too likely to play above the third pairing – and that’s if he’s a regular in 2018-19 at all.
Here’s the status quo lineup we can expect, assuming no trades and no prospects breaking into the NHL:
This leaves out who will be the healthy scratch. Right now we seem to be trending towards Dalton Prout taking over the much-coveted role of Matt Bartkowski.
Andersson makes the NHL
If Rasmus Andersson forces his way into the NHL, then he’s gotta be playing. Nobody wants him to make the big league just to sit as a healthy scratch more often than not; sure, he’ll make more money in the NHL, but actually playing is probably his goal, too. It might not be right away, though. Remember how Kulak himself forced his way onto the roster full time, but didn’t start cracking the lineup regularly until late October.
But if Andersson is in the NHL, he’s playing more games than he’s sitting. And so, here’s a potential lineup with him in play:
Kulak and Andersson were partners in Stockton, and when Andersson was called up in 2017-18, both expressed excitement at getting to play on the same pairing once again, this time at the NHL level. And, indeed, Kulak was Andersson’s most common partner through this past season: they played 57:43 5v5 minutes together.
Andersson also played 49:52 with Bartkowski, and 14:04 with Michael Stone.
Speaking of Stone, then, what happens to him if Andersson makes it? In that case, he continues to provide depth. Someone is probably going to get hurt again; Stone had to fill in top four roles on occasion throughout 2017-18. Furthermore, even if Andersson is in the NHL, he probably won’t play all 82 games – only five Flames did that year.
So on occasion, Stone would probably be taking Andersson’s spot in the lineup. And if Stone is better than Kulak, well, then he may be taking his spot as well – and relegating Kulak to the press box.
Valimaki makes the NHL
This scenario is a little more pressing to Kulak’s situation, as both are left shots. With that in mind, here’s a new potential lineup:
The same circumstances that apply to Andersson apply to Valimaki: if he makes the NHL, he’s going to be playing. He also has a much higher ceiling than Kulak, which effectively sees Kulak pushed out of the lineup.
If this is the case, though, then there’s still a bright side: Kulak, even as the extra guy unlikely to play much, is still a more reliable player than Bartkowski. So even if he isn’t playing every day, the Flames will have a better option for their seventh guy – though it does suck for Kulak personally.
Andersson and Valimaki make the NHL
Will two defensive prospects make the Flames’ lineup? It’s certainly possible, though it seems unlikely. Not only do coaches tend to have a difficult time entrusting too much responsibility in rookies, but rookies playing defence, at that? And potentially both on the same pairing? That’s a very big leap of faith we don’t see too often.
But if both force the Flames’ hands, and nobody else gets traded, then you’ve got to think the two of them will rotate in and out of the lineup with Stone. This situation leaves absolutely no room for Kulak, and he could be back in the AHL to start the year. He may not spend it there – he’s good to have just in case somebody gets hurt, or a prospect underperforms – but if he gets passed by then, well, he gets passed by.
No matter who does or doesn’t make the lineup, it’s really hard to see Kulak jumping up into the top four; at least not right away.
The Flames traded Dougie Hamilton in part because of a hope that TJ Brodie’s game would recover to the near-elite level it was at when he played alongside Mark Giordano. And they certainly didn’t just acquire Noah Hanifin to not play him in a prominent role – and it’s the same deal for Travis Hamonic, too, in all likelihood.
But, as we know from the Hamonic-Brodie pairing this past season, things don’t always go to plan. In that case, can Kulak step into a top four role?
Over the others, it wouldn’t be a smart bet to make. He hasn’t shown as much offensive potential as Andersson or Valimaki, let alone established NHLers (Stone perhaps aside, but his experience is going to trump Kulak’s easily). If the top two pairings don’t work out – and switching them up doesn’t work out, either – then it should probably go to Andersson or Valimaki to fix things first, because one, or both, could be playing a top four role sooner than we think. But for Kulak to end up in the Flames’ top four, it’s probably going to require neither Andersson nor Valimaki making it, and something going very wrong on the top two pairings.
And it’s totally fine that Kulak doesn’t project to be a high scorer or top four defender in the NHL: he’s still a valuable player to have because, from top to bottom, teams need reliable depth, and he provides just that. It doesn’t make for a great arbitration case, but it does help the overall team.