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Kulak pushing for second start in Calgary

by Aaron Vickers @AAVickers / CalgaryFlames.com

CALGARY, AB -- It's familiar territory for Brett Kulak. 

Late stages of camp.

A handful of defencemen remaining. 

He's among them.

Again.

"I think to this point I've done well," Kulak said. "Every day you come and you want to be better. I'm trying to do that. I'm coming in here and trying to get better every day."

Last year, Kulak was the feel-good story of Calgary Flames camp, surging up the depth chart to take up patrol on the blueline in the wake of a broken bone in the hand of fellow rearguard TJ Brodie.  

An opportunity seized.

It's aiding him in this year's scenario. 

"It helps me a little bit," Kulak said. "Last year I was almost not really expecting to make it all the way to the end. Now the comfort level is there for me. My mindset now is to take a spot that's open on the back end. I'm expecting to be at this point. I trained and prepared all summer to be where I am now. It's not too surprising. 

"I just want to keep working."

This year's opportunity is fueled, at least in part, to another injury on the back end.

It was announced at the start of camp that Ladislav Smid, in the final year of his contract, would be unfit to play in 2016-17 because of longstanding neck issues.

It's opened the door for Kulak, and others, to audition for a more permanent role.

"Coming in this year, his mindset has to be, 'okay, I was happy I got it and did it … now I want to prove I'm here and I don't want to leave … I want to say and I want to earn a spot,'" Flames assistant general manager Craig Conroy said. "That's got to be his mindset coming into it.

"His mindset is proving every day he belongs here, whether it's taking a spot, being the seven guy, beating out other players. Last year we said you're going to steal a jersey. You have to. That's the only way to become an NHL player, is come here and show us you're better than someone else.

"We're in the business of winning games. If you're the best player you're going to be here. Whoever is the best, whoever is going to help the Calgary Flames is how you're going to do it. That's what his mindset needs to be. 

"He seems much more focused this year. He doesn't want to go down. 

Kulak doesn't.

Not after last year.

Not after spending the first six games of last season in Calgary, and two more skates with the Flames in March.

And they're proving invaluable this time around.

"Just another year of experience … I've got some games on my belt and another year of growth and maturity … I think it helps a lot for me," Kulak said. "You've just got to try to be the best you can be every day. That's all I can control, really. I have to leave it up to the coaches from there.

So far, so good.

Kulak, coincidentally, led the Flames in pre-season scoring with two goals and three points in four games. All three points came as part of an outburst against the Winnipeg Jets in a friendly on Sept. 27.

"I thought he played a decent game, a good solid game," Calgary coach Glen Gulutzan said. "He's not going to get two goals and an assist every game. We don't expect him to. He's built off his first game and he's gotten better through camp.

"With those young defencemen, the longer they stay the more comfortable they get the better plays they make, because they feel it a little more. They feel they belong a little more. I see him as doing a really good job." 

The fact he's still around reflects that. 

Kulak is one of 10 defencemen -- Smid included -- that remains in camp.

He's outlasted Kenney Morrison, Ryan Culkin and Oliver Kylington, all teammates of Kulak's in Stockton of the American Hockey League last season, whom have been assigned back to the minors in recent days. 

"There's only a couple cuts left to make," Kulak said. "I think it's good. The roster has thinned out. Now we're down to one practice squad.

"I'm going to keep doing what I do."

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