CALGARY — There wasn’t much job opportunity on the Calgary Flames’ defence at training camp. But with just one previous NHL game under his belt, Brett Kulak secured a spot on the blue-line to start the season.
Calgary was set to open its 2015-16 campaign with three goaltenders and just six defencemen.
With veterans Mark Giordano, Dougie Hamilton, Kris Russell, Dennis Wideman and Deryk Engelland locks in the lineup, Kulak had to beat out experienced defenceman to gain the last spot on the opening-day roster.
The 21-year-old from Stony Plain, Alta., played the majority of last season in the ECHL with the Colorado Eagles.
“I remember when I was there, it felt like a long way away from the NHL,” Kulak said Wednesday prior to Calgary’s season-opener against the Vancouver Canucks. “I didn’t know when I would eventually get to the NHL, but I just kept working at it.”
Defenceman T.J. Brodie will return to the Flames’ lineup from a broken finger later this month or early November.
Calgary moving one of the three goalies opens up a spot for a seventh defencemen, but there’s stiff competition coming from the Flames’ AHL affiliate in Stockton, Calif.
Tyler Wotherspoon, who has played in 21 games for Calgary, and 27-year-old Jakub Nakladal were assigned there last week.
Kulak has the opportunity early this season to play substantial minutes as Calgary’s No. 6 defenceman.
“Every day I’m here I’m learning more and more,” Kulak said.
“I can be better. Just the experience every day, every game I get is going to be huge for me in the long run. It’s a good opportunity for me to show them I can play at this level.”
Kulak had nine goals and 21 assists in 39 games for the Eagles last season, as well as four goals and nine assists in 26 AHL games. He played three seasons for the Western Hockey League’s Vancouver Giants with a career high 60 points in 2013-14.
Calgary’s fourth-round pick (105th overall) in the 2012 entry draft made his NHL debut in the Flames’ regular-season finale April 11. With the top four defencemen resting for the playoffs, Kulak played almost 20 minutes in the game.
That’s experience he’s grateful to have now.
“It was huge for me, huge for my confidence with the year I went through to get to the last game there,” Kulak said. “It was just a good taste and it made me hungry going into the off-season to work hard and get where I am now.”
The six-foot-one, 190-pound defender got in a few reps paired with Giordano in pre-season games. The Flames’ captain was impressed.
“I thought he was our best defenceman that last game against Winnipeg,” Giordano said. “He really showed great poise and he was calm out there and played solid. If he plays like that, he’s going to be around for a long time.”
“It’s a great story. He’s worked so hard to get here and I’m honestly really happy for him. He’s another guy who can push the pace up the ice and jump in and make plays for sure.”
Kulak spent the summer training in Calgary with Flames’ strength and conditioning coach Ryan van Asten and alongside veterans Russell and Matt Stajan.
“Those were big things for me,” Kulak said. “I think it was probably the most dedicated, hardest-working summer I put in. I feel the best I’ve ever felt coming into a hockey season.”
Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press