Let’s quickly review the rules for the upcoming NHL expansion draft. One specific rule, actually:
All first- and second-year professionals, as well as all unsigned draft choices, will be exempt from selection (and will not be counted toward their club’s applicable protection limits).
Brett Kulak played his 2014-15 season in the ECHL, AHL, and NHL. He played his 2015-16 season in the AHL and NHL. He is playing his 2016-17 season – his third professional year – in the NHL.
It does not matter how many games Kulak plays this season. Kulak could be sent to Adirondack and play the rest of the year there and he would still be eligible to be taken in the expansion draft unless he is specifically protected. He is not a part of any exemptions, just as Emile Poirier and Hunter Shinkaruk are not.
The Flames will meet player exposure requirements with him or without. They have no impact on Kulak’s status as a third-year pro.
And the way things are currently going, he could be the most interesting story on the Flames this year.
Three defencemen, or fewer forwards?
The Flames have two options when it comes to protecting their skaters: either they can protect three defencemen and seven forwards, or they can protect eight skaters.
Let’s assume the Flames go with the first option. If they protected four defencemen, then they would only be able to protect four forwards. Who? Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau, Sam Bennett, and Mikael Backlund? Say goodbye to Michael Frolik, in that case. It simply doesn’t make sense for the makeup of this team.
So if the Flames are only going to protect three defencemen, then barring any trades, their options are Mark Giordano, T.J. Brodie, Dougie Hamilton, Jyrki Jokipakka, and Kulak.
Get the terrible start to the season out of your heads. It’s extremely difficult to imagine anyone other than Giordano, Brodie, and Hamilton being protected. They’re the big three on this team. They may not be meeting it right now, but they’re all players with 50-point potential. Giordano and Brodie have built up very good trac records, and for all any may gripe over Hamilton, he is 23 years old. You do not throw any of this away.
On the surface, Kulak’s numbers are hardly impressive. He’s 22 years old, about six months younger than Hamilton. He’s played 15 NHL games, and has one assist to show for it. His career ice time average is 14:30, and he has played over 20 minutes in just one game. Any glance at a standard stat sheet tells you this is a bottom pairing defenceman only just starting to find his way in the NHL with no guarantees he even makes it for real.
Through six games this season – and that includes both nightmarish southern California weekend games – he has a 5v5 CF of 57.76%. That’s second on the Flames, behind just Matthew Tkachuk. That’s with 46.65% offensive zone starts, which is a little higher on the end of deployment for Flames defencemen, but hardly aggressive sheltering.
Almost every single Flame improves when Kulak is on the ice. Deryk Engelland has spent, by far, the most time with him – 74:55 5v5 minutes – and while his improvement isn’t dramatic – not even a full percentage point – it’s still there.
And it’d be one thing if this was brand new. It’s not. Kulak played eight NHL games in the 2015-16 season, again winning a spot out of camp; he was one of the top corsi players on the team then, too. His WOWY stats weren’t as consistent – not everybody saw an improvement when sharing the ice with him – but many did (including his most common partner, Engelland, with a dramatic 11.75% 5v5 CF increase).
These are all really small sample sizes, but fact is, Kulak is trending in a very positive direction. Couple that with how he’s one of the few Flames actually worth watching right now – him and Tkachuk, so it must be part of a youthful exuberance thing, plus actually being good – and if this keeps up, then we could be looking at the emergence of a top-four defenceman here.
There’s no reason to scratch Kulak another game. And there’s no reason to think this doesn’t keep up.
Kulak is 22, in his third professional season, and looking like he deserves top four time. He’s already getting powerplay time.
If he emerges as a top four defenceman over the course of this season, then that’s that.
It’s not as though the Flames would be totally screwed if Kulak were taken; not with Oliver Kylington, Rasmus Andersson, Brandon Hickey, and even Adam Fox on the horizon. But a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Having a young top four defenceman is going to be better than having a young defenceman who may or may not be a top four guy.
So if Kulak continues trending upwards, losing him in the expansion draft could be a problem.
It’s hard to see the solution happening
Giordano is 33 years old. Brodie is 26. Hamilton is 23, and Kulak is 22.
One of these things is not like the others, one of these things just doesn’t belong, and it’s the Flames’ captain.
Even if the Flames rescue themselves from this horrid start to the season they’ve got going on, it’s simply more likely for Giordano to decline much sooner than the rest of these guys. Worse yet, that decline carries with it a cap hit of $6.75 million that’s going to run until he’s 39 years old. It’s pretty likely that contract becomes unpleasant.
Therefore: protect Brodie, protect Hamilton, protect Kulak, keep together the formations of a young, mobile top four, and shed a bad contract before it has the chance to get bad.
This carries with it a number of problems.
- Hockey is nothing if not overly sentimental. You think the Flames are going to do their captain like that? Especially when he should have two Norrises by now and had a 56-point season last year?
- You’re going to give up Giordano for nothing? We can talk about how gross his contract is likely to become years down the line; that doesn’t mean he’s worthless now. Bad asset management.
- So then, say you trade Giordano. For what, another asset you have to protect? In all likelihood, that’s what it would end up being, in which case, say goodbye to that return, or Frolik, or Troy Brouwer, or Micheal Ferland, or Shinkaruk… Either way, you’re almost certainly losing somebody you like.
So what is the solution, in that case? If Kulak emerges, what do you do then?
That’s what’s going to be so interesting to find out.
Kulak is not an every day top four defenceman… that we know of, at this point in time. This is all based in speculation that he becomes one by the time it’s the expansion draft. And this could just be a hot streak, and maybe he just tops out at a pretty good bottom pairing guy to have, but that’s not quite what things are looking like at this point in time.
Besides, it’s always more fun to discuss and prepare for a worst-case scenario – it’s just that this one so happens to see the Flames losing what could very well be a top four defenceman in his early 20s for nothing.
Which would, without a doubt, suck. But that’s not what’s happening just yet.
But it could.