Skating backward to defend an odd-man rush, Mats Lindgren had Jiri Kulich’s only passing option covered during a drill early in the Buffalo Sabres’ morning skate Saturday at LECOM Harborcenter.
All Lindgren could do was watch as Kulich rifled the puck off the cross bar and into the net, providing his teammates and coaches with another sign that he was ready to return from an injury scare that kept him out of the Prospects Challenge opener.
“Oh, so good,” Lindgren said, still in disbelief from what unfolded on the ice. “He came down 2-on-1 on me, I think on the second drill or something. Sniped it, bar down. There wasn’t really anything I could do, I guess.”
Kulich wasn’t done there. He showcased his combination of speed, quick hands and a shot that Rochester coach Seth Appert described as “scary” during the Sabres’ 7-4 win over the New Jersey Devils’ prospects Saturday night.
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Kulich’s tantalizing talent didn’t cause the audible gasps that it did throughout development camp. He scored an empty-net goal, added two assists and, though he showed some rust from missing time in camp, there were flashes of the dynamic skill set that convinced Sabres management that he’s ready to play for the Amerks this season.
Ethan Ritchie, Filip Cederqvist, Aleksandr Kisakov, Spencer Sova, Isak Rosen and Matt Savoie also scored for the Sabres, who received 27 saves from goalie Beck Warm to improve to 2-0 at the prospects tournament.
Kulich, 18, was noticeable throughout the game. Centering a line with Lukas Rousek at left wing and Rosen on the right side, Kulich skated around defenders and showed poise with the puck. The trio combined for two goals and six points. But it’s Kulich's play without the puck that will help him with the transition to pro hockey in North America. Kulich is ferocious on the forecheck and works tirelessly to regain possession. He helped the Sabres on the penalty kill in the third period Saturday.
“He's a dynamic player,” said Appert, who’s leading the Sabres at the Prospects Challenge. “He's a goal scorer that's not just a goal scorer, right? You saw that at the World Juniors as a double under ager that he's also a forechecker. He's the guy that goes hunts pucks, comes up with puck battles, takes pucks to hard areas.
“He's built differently than most 18-year-olds, so we believe he is ready for the challenge in the American Hockey League, or what else might be. But we believe in what we're trying to do from a developmental process. Nobody is more invested in their development than we are, so when we have talented young players like him, Rosen and Kisakov, we'd rather be the ones developing them than trusting that to somebody else who's not affiliated with our organization.”
Twice, Sabres General Manager Kevyn Adams tried to trade up in the first round to select Kulich, beginning with pick No. 17. A deal didn’t materialize, though, forcing Adams and his hockey operations staff to sit and hope that the Czech center would be available when Buffalo was on the clock again that night in Montreal.
To the surprise of those who watched Kulich at the IIHF Under-18 World Championship, Kulich fell all the way to the Sabres at 28 overall. Appert knows as well, or better, than anyone how to properly evaluate a player’s performance at the tournament. He was part of Team USA’s coaching staff at two Under-18s, including as its head coach in 2018. Appert was “blown away” by Kulich’s performance.
As captain of Czechia, Kulich was named tournament MVP after leading all players in goals (9) and points (11) across six games.
“Quite frankly, I was surprised he fell to where he fell,” Appert added. “And then felt even more that way at development camp. Most goal scorers at that young of an age don't play very hard. That's the reality. They just don't. They don't know how to work. They don't know how to go forecheck, be responsible defensively, because they've been the best players on their teams their whole life and they score so many goals that they're allowed to get away with things. He has a work ethic, and a so-called B game about him. That also gives us a lot of confidence about bringing him over here this year, that he won't be overwhelmed.”
Kulich is different, though. He proved again last month at the IIHF World Junior Championship, which features the top Under-18 players in the world, that he can win puck battles and earn space in the offensive zone against older, stronger competition. His eight points in seven games were tied with Canadiens prospect Jan Mysak, 20, for the team lead.
Still unsure where he’ll play this season, Kulich told reporters that his focus is on improving “every day” to try to reach the NHL. “Yeah, that’s my goal,” he said. Kulich, unlike most prospects his age, appears to have the necessary strength. Listed at 6-foot, 170 pounds, he played 57 pro games in Czechia. His adjustment will be like that of JJ Peterka, who experienced some challenges with the Amerks last season, but through improved defense, he scored 25 games from January 1 until the end of the season.
“When he gets the puck a lot, players that we're talking about are special with the puck,” said Appert. “But it's how good they can be at getting it back that really starts to ignite their offensive game.”
Here are other observations from the game:
1. Standing out
Lukas Rousek looks like the early favorite to stick around NHL training camp longer than expected. Again, Rousek, 23, was a force on the puck below the hashmarks and his passes to the blue line sent the Devils into a scramble, including on Ritchie’s tying goal in the first period.
2. Breaking through
Nerves are inevitable for prospects in this event. They’re trying to make a strong impression, and, in Kisakov’s case, this event is his introduction to the pace of the NHL. The 18-year-old winger appeared much more comfortable on the ice, particularly when he bolted down the left wing to separate from defenseman Reilly Walsh and beat goalie Nico Daws with a wrist shot to the far post to make it 3-1.
And Savoie finally broke through offensively when he scored an important insurance goal to give the Sabres a 6-4 lead with 6:54 remaining in regulation.
3. Learning curve
Oskari Laaksonen pushed back in the first period when the Devils crashed the net after the whistle. It must have been a welcome sight for Rochester’s coaching staff, which has pushed Laaksonen to be more physically engaged in the defensive zone.
Laaksonen must show management this season that his development is trending upward. A third-round pick in 2017, Laaksonen has 51 points in 99 regular-season games with Rochester, but he was a healthy scratch for most of the playoffs because of his defensive habits.
“He knows that it’s a big season. He’s really bought in,” said Rochester assistant coach Mike Weber. “And obviously, last year’s last year. That’s kind of what the messaging has been. And you have an opportunity when seasons end to go and really work on yourself, find that mental toughness, work on your strength and your speed and your agility – all those things – and come into camp and a brand-new season.”
With winger Josh Bloom (upper body) unavailable, Lake View native Declan McDonnell drew into the Sabres’ lineup and skated at left wing next to Nolan Burke and Emmett Sproule. McDonnell, 20, also skated with the club in development camp. He went unsigned by Tampa Bay after his selection in the seventh round of the 2020 draft, despite his exceptional play in the Ontario Hockey League.
The Prospects Challenge continues Sunday with the Ottawa Senators and Montreal Canadiens facing each other at Noon in LECOM Harborcenter. The Sabres are scheduled to practice at 10:45 a.m.