Jiri Kulich warms up before Friday’s Prospects Challenge game. ©2023, Micheline Veluvolu

In Vaclav Prospal, Jiri Kulich has special mentor as he fights to make Sabres

BUFFALO – When Vaclav “Vinny” Prospal learned Sabres prospect Jiri Kulich trains in his hometown in Czechia during the summer, he headed to the local rink in Ceske Budejovice to introduce himself.

Prospal, one of the Rochester Americans’ new assistant coaches, ran into some of his former teammates, so he invited Kulich to his house for lunch to chat.

Having coached against Kulich and followed hockey closely, Prospal knew about the youngster’s lethal shot – “It’s a gift,” he said – and supreme skating ability. He knew about his starring roles for the Czechia junior team and Amerks.

Kulich’s exploits belie his age. The talented center doesn’t play like a teenager or, apparently, look like one.

When they sat down to talk hockey, Prospal said the size Kulich’s neck caught his eye.

“I was thinking, ‘Jeez, this is not a 19-year-old kid,’” Prospal said prior to watching Kulich score a power-play goal in Friday’s 6-3 win over the Montreal Canadiens in the Prospects Challenge opener at LECOM Harborcenter.

Kulich hopes he can use a productive offseason – “It was the best summer workout I ever had,” he said Wednesday – as another step toward cracking the NHL. He said he packed on 16 pounds to his 6-foot frame. He was listed at 172 pounds last season.

“As strong as he was for an 18-year-old last year, he looks outstanding,” Amerks coach Seth Appert said Wednesday. “Physically looks like he had a very explosive summer. So good for him for not being overconfident about his year he had and putting in a lot of work. It’s very evident. I said to him today, I was like, ‘You’re not a rookie anymore.’”

Well, Kulich, the 28th overall pick in 2022, might be an NHL rookie this season. There’s a strong chance he will be one-and-done with the Amerks.

Sabres winger Jack Quinn tore his Achilles in June and will likely be sidelined until the winter. Kulich might be the best choice to fill the hole Quinn’s absence has created.

The Sabres have showed a willingness to promote some of their top forward prospects – Quinn and JJ Peterka, for example – following one standout AHL season.

Kulich enjoyed one of the greatest seasons ever by a teenager as a rookie with the Amerks in 2022-23, scoring 24 goals. He became just the fourth player in AHL history to score more than 20 goals in his 18-year-old season and the first since Syracuse’s Robert Dome in 1997-98.

Prospal might only get to coach Kulich during the rookie tournament and training camp. Still, even if they’re together a few weeks, Prospal, having also left the Czech Republic to join the AHL as an 18-year-old, can offer Kulich valuable guidance.

He spent four years in the minors with the Hershey Bears and Philadelphia Phantoms, the Flyers’ AHL affiliates, morphing from a raw rookie into a star who recorded 32 goals and 95 points in 63 games in 1996-97.

He went on to play 1,108 NHL games over 16 seasons.

“Vinny has lived a life, coming over from Europe, not knowing the language, grinding through the American Hockey League, earning 1,100 games in the NHL after three and a half of years in the American League,” Appert said. “Those are experiences that he can share through the ups and downs with Kulich, but also with all of our young forwards, and especially the young European forwards.

“It’s hard to leave home and come over to a new country, different culture and different language and different style of hockey, and then be stuck in the American League. In their mind, (they’re) stuck and having to grind their way out. And his career is a great role model for what we want our players to do with the adversity they’ll hit.”

Center Matt Savoie scored twice for the Sabres in Friday’s win, including a highlight-reel goal in which he converted his own rebound to make it 5-3 in the third period. Center Tyson Kozak scored the go-ahead goal 1:42 into the third period. Defenseman Mats Lindgren and winger Isak Rosen also scored.

Notes: Kulich centered Rosen and Olivier Nadeau on Friday. Meanwhile, Savoie pivoted Zach Benson and Filip Cederqvist. Benson, Savoie’s junior teammate, assisted on his first goal. … Defenseman Nikita Novikov recorded three assists. … Goalie Scott Ratzlaff made 18 saves. … Friday’s game was sold out. Tonight’s contest against the New Jersey Devils is also sold out. … Appert said a lower-body injury will sideline defenseman Vsevolod Komarov the entire tournament. “Nothing dramatically serious, just happened in training,” he said.

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