By Warren Kozireski —
Prior to leaving the Rochester Americans for Team Czechia’s camp leading up to the IIHF U-20 World Junior Championships, Buffalo Sabres 2022 first round draft pick (28th overall) Jiri Kulich had six goals with ten assists over 24 games.
After leading Team Czechia in scoring, including the overtime winner in the semi-finals against Sweden that ultimately led to his team winning a Silver Medal, he returned Jan. 11 and managed just one goal and four assists in January.
But he has rebounded nicely since with seven goals and two assists during nine games in February with two remaining. Oh, and he was moved from the wing to center in February as well.
The normal ups and downs of an 18-year-old (19 in mid-April) playing his first North American professional season.
“I actually think his game in January was very good, he just wasn’t always on the scoresheet,” Rochester head coach Seth Appert said about his rookie forward. “What we’re seeing now in February is the product of the work he was putting in in January; his defensive habits are better and he’s competing harder and hunting pucks more and winning more puck battles.”
As for the move to center in his fifth month in North America?
“I think it’s tough for young players to play center here,” Kulich said in late-February. “I just learned how to win faceoffs because in Czech it is different—here you can kick the puck. I think, if I’m at center, it helps me in the D-zone.”
“We believe your ability to play multiple positions is important,” Appert said. “Part of development is learning how to be a great defensive player and how to check and have great defensive habits. As a center you just have to; as a wing you can cheat a little.
“So, him being at center some nights is messy, some nights it’s very, very good. Offensively I think it’s been very good; he get’s the puck with speed a little more often instead of being stuck on the wall. Defensively sometimes it’s been an adventure and sometimes it’s been really good.
“He’s getting better at those things and I think him playing center is going to make him check better no matter what position he plays going forward…because he’ll have a greater appreciation for it.”
Kulich and Rosen were allowed to leave Rochester in December to participate in the World Junior tournament with and against their peer age group, an experience that Kulich felt was good for his development.
“I felt so much better (there) than in August because I think I’m now better mentally and better in the physical game, so that was my weapon since I played with same-age guys. It helped me so much to play men’s hockey.
“Afterwards I felt so great mentally, but the first game I played (back) here was so tough. I think World Juniors was easier than this…and I was so surprised because I thought I would be a better player than before World Juniors, but I wasn’t. So, I tried to work hard…the first seven games afterward were tough. I felt comfortable, but this league is tough.
With his recent offensive numbers, the 5’11”, 172 lb. Kulich has jumped into the top-15 in the AHL among rookies in goals and top-20 in points. And before he was drafted, he was the highest scoring junior player in the Czech men’s league, so this shouldn’t be a surprise.
Not a bad return as he was selected with the draft pick acquired along with goaltending prospect Devon Levi, now at Northeastern University, as part of the trade sending Sam Reinhardt to Florida.
“I’m so happy to be here and I know it’s the right step to be a better player.”
(Photo provided by the Rochester Americans Hockey Club)