ROCHESTER – Americans rookie Jiri Kulich positioned himself in the right circle during a power play, and when Ethan Prow adroitly delivered a pass into his wheelhouse, he quickly unleashed a wicked one-timer.
Kulich, 18, laughed a bit as he recalled his late tying goal, his team-leading 22nd score, in last Wednesday’s 3-2 overtime loss to the Cleveland Monsters.
As the Czech forward developed into a coveted prospect the Buffalo Sabres would draft 28th overall in 2022, he became known for what general manager Kevyn Adams has called an “elite shot.” But he couldn’t one-time the puck until last season.
“I didn’t know how to do it,” Kulich told the Times Herald in Blue Cross Arena. “So I missed the puck all the time.”
These days, Kulich, the AHL’s youngest regular player, doesn’t miss much. Having scored 15 goals in his last 25 games entering tonight’s contest against the Syracuse Crunch, he has been scorching since early February.
How rare is a season as prolific as Kulich’s?
“Very rare,” Amerks general manager Jason Karmanos said. “It’s exciting. I mean, for him to come into this league at his age and just even just play and contribute, it’s one thing. To contribute at the level he’s contributed is truly remarkable. So we’re excited for him, for us, for his future.”
Kulich’s just the fourth player in league history to score more than 20 goals in his 18-year-old season and the first since Syracuse’s Robert Dome in 1997-98. He’s the second 18-year-old in Amerks history to hit the mark, joining Jozef Cierny, who scored 27 goals in 1992-93.
It’s crazy to think that two years ago, Kulich, who turns 19 on April 14, couldn’t one-time the puck.
Overall, Kulich has registered 43 points in 57 games with the Amerks this season.
Assigning the 5-foot-11, 172-pound Kulich, who played pro hockey in Czechia last year, to the AHL was a bit of an unusual move. Many Europeans stay home during their first season after the NHL Draft. The Sabres also had the option to send him to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
“I’d say he’s exceeded expectations,” Karmanos said.
The success winger JJ Peterka enjoyed last year – his 69 points were the most by an AHL player in his under-20 season since 1974-75 – possibly convinced the Sabres to send another teenager to Rochester.
“We thought he was ready for it,” Karmanos said of Kulich. “He had a heck of a training camp. He’s still growing into his body, but that being said, for his age, he does have decent size and strength. So physically, he’s a little bit more prepared for it than some others.
“So, yeah, there was a little bit of uncertainty in terms of how it might play out. I think we felt comfortable with what went on here the couple years prior with the staff here.”
Not surprisingly, Kulich endured a slow start, scoring only two goals in his first 16 games.
“First two, three months in American Hockey League it was so frustrating,” said Kulich, who has scored five goals in his last eight games.
Then in mid-December, the Sabres assigned Kulich to World Junior Championship. His dynamic performance – he scored seven goals and nine points in seven games – as Czechia earned a surprising silver medal infused him with confidence.
“Then I felt more comfortable,” Kulich said. “I tried to not be frustrated and just play hockey and enjoy the hockey.”
Kulich started his torrid stretch about two weeks after returning from the tournament. Of course, his surge can be attributed to more than a brief stint representing his country.
Many AHL rookies, especially Europeans adjusting to the smaller ice surface, need months to acclimate to a different and more difficult brand of hockey.
“There’s definitely going to be a learning curve,” Karmanos said. “I think he just got more confident, more comfortable. I think there were several games, lots of games early on where he played well. But there were other games where he was still finding his way. Now, I think we’re finding he’s more consistent shift to shift.”
Amerks coach coach Seth Appert said Kulich’s growing maturity has buoyed some of his success. In October, for example, he said he might’ve had to make Kulich redo about 25 percent of his practice drills.
“He’s trying, he always does,” Appert said. “He’s a competitive kid. He was not doing it right. Sloppy and attention to detail. Things that you can get away with when you’re a young skill player that get exposed at this level really get exposed at the next level.
“And very seldom now in practice do you have to draw things to his attention because he’s taking ownership of habits, his work, his competitiveness.”
Kulich has recently been showcasing that competitiveness at center, his natural position. After playing much of the season as a winger, injuries forced the Amerks to move him back to the middle.
“We think that there’s been tremendous growth in his ability to play in the middle of the ice and absorb those defensive responsibilities that come with it,” Karmanos said.
This one-timer from Jiri Kulich 🔥
WE WANT MORE!! pic.twitter.com/3SUxQyuLky
— Rochester Americans (@AmerksHockey) March 31, 2023