ROCHESTER – The silver medal Buffalo Sabres prospect Jiri Kulich recently earned at the World Junior Championship hasn’t changed his life much.
Of course, Kulich, 18, is proud to have scored the overtime goal against Sweden to send Czechia to its first gold medal game since 2001. But following what he called an “unbelievable” experience, he simply resumed his rookie season with the Americans.
If he had returned home earlier this month, he might’ve been besieged with media requests and seen firsthand how excited Czechia, which fell to Canada in overtime of the final, was over the country’s silver medal.
“Our country’s so happy,” Kulich said earlier this month in Blue Cross Arena. “We were so surprised. Like, our country was so proud for us.”
He said a television crew even interviewed his father, Jaroslav.
“He told me he was so nervous,” he said.
Kulich, the 28th overall pick last year, looked poised representing Czechia, scoring seven goals, the tournament’s second-highest total, and nine points in seven games.
Shortly before his overtime goal, Sabres prospect Isak Rosen, his Amerks teammate, nearly scored for Sweden.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God, no way,’” said Kulich, who said he and Rosen laughed before each faceoff they were on the ice together.
Kulich scored Czechia’s first goal late in the gold medal medal game, igniting his country’s comeback.
The slick forward also enjoyed a terrific World Juniors last year – the COVID-19 pandemic delayed it until August – registering two goals and eight points as Czechia finished fourth. But having participated in his first NHL training camp and played three months in the AHL, he returned to this year’s tournament a more polished youngster.
“There’s always a risk that they go back there, they think it’s going to be easier, they don’t play at the level they should,” Amerks assistant coach Michael Peca said earlier this month. “I thought that he went there and played with a lot of pace. He still has some 18-year-old in him. It’s our job to kind of weed out as the year moves along.”
Peca said he has showcased “incremental” growth since the Sabres drafted him. Naturally, the Amerks want him to play with more pace.
“His skating and his shot are his two biggest assets,” Peca said. “Your shot only matters if you’re using your speed and your legs.”
The 5-foot-11, 171-pound Kulich, who has been playing center and wing, utilized his best assets to create two goals in Saturday’s 5-3 loss to the Charlotte Checkers.
On the power play in the first period, he unleashed a wicked wrist shot from the top of the left circle winger that winger Brett Murray tipped in. In the second period, he zoomed into the Charlotte zone before dishing to center Mason Jobst.
Just another pretty little power play goal 🤩 pic.twitter.com/Rn0gphj8At
— Rochester Americans (@AmerksHockey) January 28, 2023
Overall, Kulich has compiled seven goals and 21 points in 32 games this season, including four assists in his last three outings.
Despite his being one of the AHL’s youngest players, he’s managed to consistently contribute offense.
“He’s got a long way to go still, but he’s gotten a lot better,” Amerks coach Seth Appert said earlier this month.
Peca said Sabres rookie winger JJ Peterka went through the same development process last season in Rochester.
“If you play with your legs and play with speed to defend, forecheck, track back, get pucks back, the more you learn to get pucks back the more you’re going to be on offense, the more opportunities you’re going to get,” he said. “And he’s slowly starting to grasp that concept. It’s a hard sell for an 18-year-old. They’re playing pro hockey, at times they’re just trying to survive it. And I think when he does it he’s really starting to see the benefits of him using his speed.”
For example, Appert said Kulich has started winning more puck battles and backchecking harder.
“What they really have to learn at this level – it’s the same at the NHL level – if you don’t win puck battles, you’re not committed to engaging physically,” he said. “It doesn’t mean you have to go run around, hit people. But you got to get your nose over pucks, you got to get low, you got to get a low center of gravity, you got to get under sticks. You’re going to play defense 75 percent of your shifts if you don’t do those things.”
Returning to the AHL for the first time since early in the 2017-18 season has offered Amerks forward Vinnie Hinostroza an opportunity to play a lot more.
Hinostroza, 28, lost regular his spot with the Sabres this year and played just 19 games, compiling zero goals and eight assists while averaging 12 minutes, 15 seconds of ice time.
In Rochester, where he has played center in his first three games, he has been earning big minutes. He scored in his debut Wednesday.
“I’ve known Vinnie since since he was 16, 17 years old,” Appert said. “One thing you never have to question with Vinnie is attitude, work ethic, competitiveness, passion. He even said the other night, of course he doesn’t want to be in this league. He’s been in the NHL for a long time. But I said, ‘How did it feel to play 21 minutes?’ And he laughed and he’s like, ‘It was pretty fun.’”
The Sabres tried to trade Hinostroza, according to multiple reports, before waiving him earlier this month.
The Amerks scratched winger Anders Bjork, another NHL veteran, for Friday’s 4-2 loss to Charlotte.
“He’s been really, really good for us,” Appert said.
Right now, the Amerks have too many forwards and don’t want to sit out prospects.
“The American Hockey League is tricky when you’re balancing winning and development,” Appert said. “I mean, we can’t just shelf the kids. That can’t be the answer.”
Appert said an upper-body injury will sideline Amerks defenseman Joseph Cecconi, a Youngstown native, “multiple weeks.”