Jiri Kulich is one of Buffalo’s top prospects. ©2024, Micheline Veluvolu

Despite scoring slump, Sabres prospect Jiri Kulich playing some of best hockey of career in Rochester

ROCHESTER – Three months ago, when Buffalo Sabres prospect Jiri Kulich left to captain Team Czechia at the World Junior Championship, the Americans believed the reward outweighed any risk.

Sure, Kulich, 19, might not score at the same blistering pace later in the AHL season. But wearing the prestigious letter is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“We knew he was going to be a potential detriment coming back to us,” Amerks coach Seth Appert said following Tuesday’s practice in Blue Cross Arena. “But it was something that he needed to do for his country. Those are special experiences.

“We believe the growth that he got to go through there as a leader was more beneficial than how tired he was gonna be on the way back.”

Kulich performed dominantly at the tournament, scoring six goals and 12 points in seven games. As captain, he tried to emulate Amerks veteran Michael Mersch and be more than an offensive threat.

“If you have a ‘C’ on your chest, you have to be a leader everywhere,” Kulich said. “So I think I was a leader everywhere.”

As expected, Kulich, who earned his first recall to the Sabres in November, was spent after participating in his third World Juniors in an 18-month stretch.

The slick center departed for Sweden shortly before Christmas having scored 16 times in 23 games, a torrid 50-goal clip over a full AHL campaign. After scoring the late tying goal in Wednesday’s 6-5 home win over the Hartford Wolf Pack, he has compiled 19 goals in 44 outings this season.

“It was hard,” Kulich, who registered two assists Wednesday, said of his scoring struggles. “I felt pretty good the first couple games (back) but then I felt like I can’t do anything. I can’t help my teammates to win.”

He endured an 11-game goal drought when he rejoined the Amerks.

“Scoring goals is my job and it was my job when I was younger, too,” said Kulich, the 28th overall pick in 2022. “So it was pretty frustrating for me and I had to find a way how to help my team.”

After he scored again Feb. 16, an upper-body injury sidelined him the next five games. That 10-day break turned out to be blessing, as he had an opportunity to rest and recharge.

While goals have still been difficult to score, Appert believes the last three weeks or so have been the best stretch of Kulich’s pro career.

“The two years he’s been here, this is the best he’s played and it’s not even close,” he said.

He added: “He’s back … to looking (like) the very dangerous and explosive player he is.”

Appert’s words illustrate how the 6-foot-1, 186-pound Kulich has evolved from a one-dimensional threat into a versatile presence capable of contributing all over the ice.

“I had to find a way how to help my team win,” Kulich said. “That was be better in the D-zone, be more physical. … It’s not about just scoring.”

Kulich, of course, should start scoring more frequently. In Friday’s 5-3 win over the Toronto Marlies, he utilized his lethal shot to score from the circle.

“He’s almost getting to the point of the way that he played at the beginning of the year when the puck was going in,” Amerks assistant coach Vaclav Prospal said. “And it’s just a matter of time, and he’s going to unload and kind of open the floodgates again.”

Kulich’s offensive struggles can be dissected a few ways.

He has been a bit snakebitten, having hit some crossbars and posts or been stymied by terrific saves.

When he left for Sweden, he possessed a gaudy 23.2 shooting percentage. Since he returned, he had just a 3.7 shooting percentage entering Wednesday.

As one of the Amerks’ drivers this season, he and linemate Isak Rosen, another top Sabres prospect who has struggled offensively at times, often face the opposition’s best. They’re not getting many third- or fourth-line matchups.

Kulich has also been thrown into more defensive situations.

“(Kulich’s) taking D-zone faceoffs, not just O-zone, so he’s having to have D-zone starts, because that’s part of his growth that he needs to do those things because there’s not many opening spots and the top six for the Buffalo Sabres,” said Appert, who utilizes Kulich in five-on-six situations late in games.

He added: “The more defensive responsibilities you throw at him, there is some give and take to offense, too.”

The Amerks also play in the ultra-competitive North Division, which features some heavy competition.

“(We) play Utica and Syracuse 24 times,” Appert said. “And that’s not easy because they’re old and they’re physical and they’re heavy, and there’s no team in our division that is a train wreck that it’s you’re gonna go score 5,6,7 goals. So that’s part of it.”

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