ROCHESTER – Buffalo Sabres prospect Jiri Kulich was a force that night, utilizing his 6-foot-1, 186-pound frame and setting three career highs for the Americans.
Kulich, 19, did not score a goal or even assist on one. No, he registered personal bests in puck battles, hits and takeaways on Nov. 10 in a 4-3 win over the Utica Comets, according to Amerks coach Seth Appert.
“All in the same game,” Appert said following Monday’s practice in Blue Cross Arena.
With the Amerks down seven of their top forwards to injuries and recalls, Kulich said he “tried to be a leader.”
That heavier, more mature style – Appert said he also consistently backchecks and finishes checks – has buoyed Kulich’s development. The Czech has roared out of the gate in his second AHL season, scoring 10 goals in the first 14 games, a 51-goal pace over a full campaign.
As a rookie last season, he scored 24 goals, becoming just the fourth player in league history to score more than 20 goals as an 18-year-old.
But Kulich, the AHL’s youngest regular player in 2022-23, was mostly a one-dimensional threat, excelling thanks to his raw talent. For example, his quick release and lethal shot helped carry him.
“Last year, the first half of the season, it was all based on talent, and now it’s based on competitiveness, habits and detail to his game,” Appert said.
Looking back, Kulich’s growth amazes him.
“Oh yeah, last year, I didn’t play a physical game and my D-zone was pretty bad,” the center said.
Kulich, the 28th overall pick in 2022, has grasped he must to evolve. He packed on 16 pounds during the offseason.
“I had to work on the physical game and defensive zone as well … and I think I have more bounce than last year,” said Kulich, whose 14 points rank second on the Amerks behind winger Isak Rosen’s 17. “So it’s helped me to be more physical and better in the D-zone.”
That style, of course, has also helped him create more offense.
“He’s just doing little things like that more and more and more,” Appert said. “And because of that he has the puck more, and then when he has the puck more, good things happen for him offensively, and we’re seeing that on the score sheet as well.”
Kulich said: “If I’m good in defense, then I have more chances in the offensive zone.”
Appert can be hard on Kulich – “That’s great for me,” he said – as he works with him to develop different aspects of his game. They sit down together every week or so and study video. During these sessions, Appert said the youngster can be critical of his game.
“He’s got very good self-assessment,” he said.
Kulich doesn’t equate a goal scored with a successful outing.
“It’s not based on points anymore,” said Appert, whose Amerks host the Laval Rocket tonight. “… Young players that are talented can still get frustrated when they’re not scoring because their whole life has been about scoring and that’s value they’re bringing. But right now, he’s doing a really good job of growing his game.”
Kulich has grown his game so much he might be ready for his first recall to the Sabres. Their offense has struggled this season, scoring just 51 goals in 18 games (2.8 per contest), which ranked 26th overall entering Wednesday’s games. Their power play, meanwhile, has converted 11.5 percent of its chances, which ranked 27th.
With top center Tage Thompson injured and likely sidelined until next month, the Sabres must find more scoring. Kulich could provide a boost, especially in the circle where Thompson usually operates on the power play.
His one-timer would instantly rank among the NHL’s best.
But Kulich, who did not stand out during training camp in Buffalo, wants to stay in the moment. He said a recall isn’t on his mind.
“I’m not thinking about it because now I’m in Rochester and I want to play my best here,” he said.