Saturday, October 03, 2015

Closing in on Making the Team, Brett Kulak Shines in the "Biggest Test of His Life"

Note: This story was originally written and posted Saturday afternoon. It was then updated after Saturday night's game.

The dressing room 'stall' assigned to Brett Kulak said a lot about where he was at in his fight to make Calgary's opening night roster.

It was a folding chair in the middle of the Flames dressing room.

No shelf to place his helmet, no hooks to hang his skates, nothing. Just a simple, awkwardly-located, blue folding chair about the quality of what you might find for $5 or $10 at a flea market. Heck, come time to take off his various equipment, he didn't even have a place to sit because by that point, he had already draped his shirt and other gear over the chair to dry out.

While being the guy forced to stand and change had made him the butt of some good-natured ribbing from the guys sitting around the dressing room, Kulak shrugged it off with a smile as he laughed about his makeshift set-up.

"It's not much, but I'm just happy to be in the room at this point," said Kulak on Saturday morning, freshly off the ice after the morning skate. "Hopefully I can earn my way into one of the real stalls soon."

Well, "soon" turned out to be just a few hours later as for the game Saturday night against the Winnipeg Jets, he was relocated to a real player stall where he found himself tying his skates between David Jones and Michael Frolik.

While that move was done more for the purpose of that particular game, you get the sense a permanent stall is surely in the offing for Kulak, who in his fifth game of the pre-season, had himself another standout night.

Impressed by Kulak's Poise

"He looked like a playoff defenceman. He played very well," said coach Bob Hartley after the game, referring to his comment earlier in the day in which he described Saturday night's test as a playoff game for Kulak. "Nothing fancy, he skated well, made some great decisions, showed some poise. For a young defenceman, I'm very pleased with his game."

Now the 21-year-old native of Stoney Plain, Alberta, nervously waits to learn if he'll be still standing -- only figuratively speaking, this time -- come Tuesday afternoon at 3 pm MT when all 30 NHL teams must declare their season-opening 23-man rosters.

In his last chance to impress, he felt he performed how he wanted on a night in which his Mom and Dad were in the building, cheering him on.

"It went good. When I got my chance to go out there, I thought I played solid," Kulak said after the 3-2 setback to the Jets. "We just wanted to play a fast game and keep pucks moving forward. I thought me and (Deryk Engelland) played a good game."

Now it's time to sit back and wait.

"I feel good. I feel like I can play at this level. I just have to keep working at it, keep learning every day. The more time I spend around here, the more I learn and the better I get so hopefully I can stick around," he said.

The Battle on the Blue-Line

The Flames have nine defencemen remaining in camp but with TJ Brodie and Ladislav Smid both starting the season on injured reserve, that reduces the number to seven.

In normal circumstances, making it to the final seven would assure Kulak a spot on the team. However, Calgary's situation this camp is far from normal. With there being a very real possibility the Flames will open the year with three goaltenders, that equates to one less available roster spot for a skater.

That could mean 13 forwards instead of 14 or it could also mean six defencemen instead of seven. Starting the year with only six on the back end is conceivable given the Flames have two days off between each of their first three games. Plus, their AHL affiliate is just one short flight away in California now should a call-up become necessary.

With the departure on Friday of Tyler Wotherspoon and Jakub Nakladal to Stockton, the other defenceman on the bubble is veteran Ryan Wilson, who is still on a professional try-out and has yet to sign a contract.

Whether it's Kulak or Wilson that make the team or Kulak and Wilson, we'll find out Sunday or Monday. But what we do know is Saturday night in the final regular season tune-up. Kulak was the one who played while Wilson did not. When you look at the forward group and see what could very well be Calgary's starting 12 for opening night, Kulak's inclusion in the starting six on the blue-line should be viewed as a good thing if you're him. It also gave him one last chance to seize the job and take away any lingering doubt in the minds of the decision-makers that he is ready to play in the NHL.

"The more you play, the more they can see you and the more opportunity you get to prove yourself to management and the coaching staff," said Kulak.

Biggest Test of His Life

As touched on, Hartley was frank earlier in the day when discussing the importance of Saturday's game for Kulak.

"This is probably the biggest test of his life," Hartley had said. "This is a playoff game for Brett Kulak. He knows why we're playing him. Spooner and a couple other guys have left and he's still here so it's up to him to make a statement."

Kulak did, indeed, make a statement logging an effective 16:37 in ice time alongside Engelland on the third pairing.

Two years ago, Kulak's main camp lasted eight days. Last year, it was two weeks. So far this camp, Sunday will be day 18 of what's been his best showing yet. Add on another week if you go back to the start of the rookie tournament in Penticton and he says the three-and-a-half weeks have gone by quickly.

"The days feel slow in the moment but you look back at these last few weeks, they went by pretty fast and I'm obviously really happy to be where I've gotten," said Kulak. "I've just taken a day-by-day mentality at it, tried to be at my best every day, work to get better and learn every day, and I think that's helped me a lot to get to this point."

The Long Road Back From the ECHL

To be where he is today after a season spent mostly in the ECHL (39 games with Colorado in 2014-15) is a tremendous accomplishment and is a tribute to a guy, who chose to turn around his attitude and not let that humbling demotion defeat him.

"I remember I went down there and I was down on myself and the first three games I played in the East Coast, I played terrible," said Kulak, who says he was even considering a return to junior at that point. "I didn't get any points, I wasn't helping the team at all so I really took a second look at myself and said, hey, I'm here, I better figure it out otherwise I'm going to be here forever.

"I decided to set my mind on staying on the ECHL for the year and I just kept working at it and got better and eventually found my way back to the AHL and went from there."

You know the rest of the story by now. After he arrived in Adirondack to finish the season, he then earned a call-up to the Flames to make his NHL debut against the Jets in Calgary's final game of the regular season.

Winner of the 2015-16 Josh Jooris Award

In being this year's Josh Jooris, a guy coming from well off the radar to make an impression in his second pro season, it's still possible Kulak's training camp will end similarly. As you'll recall, Jooris ended up one of the Flames final cuts last year.

While it seems increasingly unlikely that will be the outcome for Kulak, even if it is, Kulak has surely put himself at the top of the call-up list at minimum.

"If we feel that a young player deserves it, then usually we'll make room for them," said Hartley. "We'll wait and see."

Having an injection of youth each season is something Hartley enjoys.

"This league is getting younger and younger and you need the passion," he says. "That's one thing that young players bring. They're excited to be in the NHL, they're eager to compete, their legs are fresh. It all depends. Different teams have different mindsets, different philosophies, but over here, we have lots of trust in our young players."

We will find out in the next 48 hours if Calgary has enough trust in Kulak to not only keep him on the team, but dress him opening night against Daniel and Henrik Sedin and the Vancouver Canucks.

With lots of supporters back on the west coast, where he played three years in the Western Hockey League for the Vancouver Giants, getting in that night would certainly be a special moment for Kulak and a well-deserved one.

"Whatever happens, whatever news I hear, I'll just reset and go from there."

By the way, have you liked Flames From 80 Feet on Facebook yet? Go there and do so now. It's just another way to be alerted to new Calgary Flames articles that I've written.


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