Jiri Kulich had just two assists during the playoffs. ©2024, Micheline Veluvolu, Rochester Americans

Despite late struggles in Rochester, Sabres happy with prospect Jiri Kulich’s development

Following a regular season in which he roared out of the gate, slumped in the middle and finished on a tear, Buffalo Sabres center prospect Jiri Kulich struggled in the Calder Cup Playoffs.

Kulich, 20, scored nine goals in his final 13 regular-season outings for the Rochester Americans. In a game he did not score during that torrid stretch, he pumped 11 shots on goal.

Then the Syracuse Crunch often stymied the Czech during the AHL North Division semifinal, holding him to zero goals and two assists as he registered a minus-8 rating in the Amerks’ five-game loss.

Sound familiar? Two years ago, fresh off a 26-goal regular season, winger Jack Quinn recorded zero goals and two assists during the Amerks’ 10-game postseason run.

“It’s funny, it’s very similar to Quinn against Laval in that year and probably some of the Utica series as well where Quinn was doing a lot of good things and pucks weren’t going in the net,” former Amerks coach Seth Appert, who has been promoted to an assistant with Buffalo, said on a Zoom call Tuesday. “Jiri Kulich did a lot of good things for us those games. Pucks didn’t go in the net for him in this series.”

Quinn, of course, grew from the difficult experience. He graduated to regular duty in Buffalo months later and has developed into one of the Sabres’ top forwards.

Appert said the adversity the youngster endured that postseason – like Kulich, he was just 20 – put him on a mission to change that summer.

“The same is going to be with Jiri Kulich,” he said. “He knows that this playoffs wasn’t his best. He knows the feeling now being a first-line center, the go-to guy with the target on you, and some of that failure is going to fuel his growth over the course of this offseason.”

Kulich, having compiled seven goals and 11 points in 12 playoff games last year, has enjoyed success in critical games.

Appert attributed his recent struggles to Syracuse’s defensive ability and “forcing it a little bit.”

“He started the series putting too much pressure on himself that he needed to be better than he was last year for us because we don’t have as much around him,” he said. “He’s more of a go-to guy even (more) than he was last year. So now, that’s a good learning lesson for him, that’s never a good way mentally to start a series.

“Then you struggle a little bit in Games 1 and 2, and now you’re gripping it a little bit, now you’re chasing it a little bit. What I like is he was recognizing this and self-processing it along the way and making adjustments.”

In Game 4, Kulich recorded seven shots on goal but did not have a point. In Friday’s 5-2 loss, he was a minus-4 but his nifty feed set up captain Michael Mersch’s goal.

Despite his underwhelming postseason, Kulich enjoyed a strong campaign, registering a team-high 27 goals and 45 points in 57 regular-season games. He turned 20 on April 14, yet has already scored 51 goals in the AHL.

When he left for Sweden shortly before Christmas, he had 16 goals in 23 games, a 50-goal clip over a full AHL campaign. Following his return, he endured an 11-game drought and scored just once over his next 19 games.

“Jiri had a great year when you step back,” Amerks general manager Jason Karmanos said. “… It’s very easy to forget how young this player is based on the early success he’s had. The expectations are very high, and that’s fair. Were there some ups and downs to his season? Absolutely. He’d be the first to tell you that. And is that normal? Yeah, I believe it is very normal.”

Kulich said “a couple of times I tried to, a little bit, find myself.”

“Especially after World Juniors,” he told reporters Saturday in Rochester. “So, yeah, I mean, first two months after I couldn’t find myself. But then everybody in the locker room just helped me to be better at other things.”

As he emerged from that long slump, Appert said Kulich, the 28th overall pick in 2022, was playing a more mature game and the best hockey of his young career.

“I improved in the defensive zone and other stuff in the d-zone, physical game, too,” Kulich said of his entire season. “So, yeah, I think I found myself.“

Kulich found himself cast as one of Rochester’s drivers. During his 24-goal rookie season in 2022-23, he played more of supporting role. His production, Karmanos said, “was almost gravy.”

It’s possible Kulich, who played his first NHL game Nov. 25, could spend at least part of next season in Rochester. Karmanos mentioned he “still has a ways to go” on his defensive game. The Sabres are also unsure if he would player center or the wing in the NHL.

“This year he was expected to be among the leaders of the team, so that’s a big burden for him to carry at his age,” he said. “I thought he did it extremely well. Would he have liked to produce more in the playoffs? Sure.”

One thought on “Despite late struggles in Rochester, Sabres happy with prospect Jiri Kulich’s development”

  1. Question I’d like to ask to KA, LR, or SA:
    Considering the fact that the Sabres will open the 2024-25 season in Prague, what will Juri Kulich need to prove in order to be on the NHL roster for those games?

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