One thing that stands out with Brett is his skating ability. He’s very quick. He can close large distances in short bursts. He’s also very fast at getting up the ice. The more comfortable he is at our level the more we’ll start to see him jumping into the rush to contribute to our offence. - Adirondack head coach Ryan Huska
GLENS FALLS, NY -- Like every young prospect, Brett Kulak’s development is a work in progress, and with 27 games left in Adirondack’s season there’s no time to waste.
The 21-year-old rookie defenceman was called up to the AHL recently after Flames assist leader Ryan Culkin was sidelined with a serious injury.
It’s a big step up for Kulak, but his contributions will be counted on heavily as Adirondack travels to Oklahoma City this weekend, trying to get back in the hunt for a Western Conference playoff spot. The Flames, after losing seven of 10 contests, are currently 10th in the conference, three points behind Texas for the eighth and final postseason berth.
Adirondack has back-to-back games at OKC on Friday and Saturday.
“It’s tight right now so we’ve got to start winning games,” Kulak said. “Each game is going to get harder. Every team is going to be pushing for the playoffs, wanting to get better. I’ve just got to improve personally and do what I can to help the team as well.”
To his credit, he knows exactly what to focus on.
“Guys at this level are really good at playing without the puck,” Kulak said. “So you know if they chip it low they’re going to try to dart to a hole towards the net. You’ve got to stick with your man; stay between your man and the net.”
“The positioning and structure is also a lot different at this level,” he said. ”I’m finding the guys are a step faster. That’s been the biggest adjustment. Opponents take away pass lanes a little better. They know where to put their sticks to take away lanes. Just little things like that make it a little tougher.”
It hasn’t taken long for Adirondack coach Ryan Huska to recognize Kulak’s assets.
“One thing that stands out with Brett is his skating ability,” he said. “He’s very quick. He can close large distances in short bursts. He’s also very fast at getting up the ice. The more comfortable he is at our level the more we’ll start to see him jumping into the rush to contribute to our offence.”
Kulak had nine goals and 21 assists at Colorado, and racked up 60 and 44 points, respectively, during last two seasons in junior hockey with the Vancouver Giants.
“I’ve always been more gifted on the offensive side of the play as a defenceman,” he said. “Now I’ve just got to work on my play in my own zone and keep the puck out of our net.”
He recorded his first AHL goal during a brief stint with the Abbotsford Heat at the end of last season. However, he holds a special place in Adirondack Flames history, by recording the team’s first-ever goal on home ice last Oct. 11 against the Albany Devils.
“It was a fast breakout, two passes and we had a winger going up the left boards,” Kulak said. “He kind of drove it all the way to the net. I just followed the play. There was a big scrum in front of the net. The puck came out to the slot, right where I was sneaking down in, and I put it in the net, in the lower left corner. It was good to get that one out of the way.”
Now the stakes are much higher as Kulak has come back to the team in the midst of an extremely close playoff race. After the three division leaders, only 10 points separate seven teams battling for the final five postseason slots.
“We’ve gotten through a tougher portion of our schedule where we’ve had a lot of practice, not a lot of games,” coach Huska said. “Our players just need to get back to that hard-working style, playing the game and having fun with it. That will be important for us this weekend.”
“From that point on it’s just keep it simple,” he said. “That’s going to be a really important message for our room; making sure we’re doing things that allow us to have success and not creating problems for ourselves.”
Kulak grew up on his family’s 1,400 grain farm about 30 minutes west of Edmonton. The nearest town, Stony Plain, didn’t have Bantam hockey so he played at nearby Spruce Grove and was drafted in the ninth round to the Vancouver Giants of the WHL.
“I had a really successful year and ended up getting chosen by the Flames (a fourth-round pick, 105th overall in the 2012 NHL entry draft). It just kind of went from there. I progressed each year,” he said.
There’s plenty of work left to do, but now Kulak is one step from his goal of reaching the NHL.
“The speed at this level is quite a bit faster,” Huska said. “All teams basically play the same style now, which is really up-tempo and really fast. And you’re also playing against guys that are real close to playing in the NHL. A lot of them are bigger and stronger. Those are all things Brett is going to have to overcome.
“For him being a younger guy, maybe not as strong as he will be down the road, he needs to really use his positioning well, and use his feet well to make sure he’s always staying on the inside of his checks.”
Kulak said Adirondack assistant coach Todd Gill, a veteran NHL defenceman, has helped him considerably during his brief time at Adirondack.
“Another good thing for Brett and some of our younger players is the extra attention they get from (strength coach) Mike Thompson in the gym before and after practice,” Huska said. “Plus, they do different things on the ice with us and watch video with us.
“So hopefully they can pull it altogether and over time we can see some improvements in all their play. And then eventually we can get them to the point where maybe they’re ready to be a call-up to the NHL.”