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After a 21-game stint in Calgary last year, the 23-year-old is pushing for full-time work with the Flames this season

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames /

At least now Brett Kulak needn't concern himself with protocol; can refrain from the urge to tiptoe around, hoping not to trod on eggshells.

"Spending a big chunk of time up here last year really, really benefited me," the just-signed defenceman is saying a little over two weeks away from the start of the Flames' training camp.

"You get to see the lifestyle and everything it takes to be an NHL player, an NHL regular.

"Travelling with the team, practices, the games I did get into … there's no substitute for experience.

"You just absorb as much as you can.

"Being around the guys that much, I feel part of the team now. Not like a bit of an outsider, trying to figure out where and how I fit in.

"When it's all kinda new to you, you're always wondering: 'Should I do this?' Or: 'Should I be doing that?' 

"You don't want to put a foot wrong.

"Now I feel a part of it all. That allows you to relax, to play a little more free, nothing else on your mind, play hockey and have fun with the guys."

A day after signing a one-year, two-way contract to remain with the organization, entering his third full year pro, the 6-2, 190-pound fourth-round draft pick of 2012, Kulak was back on the big sheet of ice out at WinSport, at Markin McPhail Centre, at an informal skate with a potpourri of Flames' regulars and hopefuls.

Splitting time with the Stockton Heat in the AHL, a 21-game NHL audition last season provided the necessary familiarity and a vital injection of confidence to believe that sample-size can be expanded through 2016-17.

"I expect a lot from myself this year,'' he emphasizes. "I think the opportunity's there for me. I really do. I believe that if I play my best, and I do it consistently, lots can happen.

"Coming into the league, I'm going to be a 5-6 guy, right? So I need to know my identity as a player. In the minors, I can be a little bit more offensive, ride on that aspect.

"At the NHL level, especially starting out and establishing myself, I need to be more of a shutdown guy while still using my strengths - my skating and my passing.

"You've got to prove yourself all season long. Having a good stretch of, say, 10 games isn't good enough.

"It takes years before you establish yourself as an NHL regular. That's what I'm working toward right now."

A week-long respite in Cabo, Mexico was wedged in between workouts this summer.

"I've been pretty busy,'' Kulak reports.

What he didn't spend time doing over obsessing when a deal might be consummated.

"I don't think there was ever any concern,'' he says. "I knew the whole time I wanted to be here, be with Calgary. I just think neither side was in a rush to get things done.

"When the qualifying offer was made it was just a matter of time.

"It's my first time going through this, after signing my entry-level contract. Maybe I should've been more anxious. But it felt like just like another summer. Wasn't panicking.

"Just sticking to the process. But obviously glad to get it done."

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