At 18, Kulich enjoying ‘incredible’ season with Amerks

Photo: Micheline V

📝 by Patrick Williams

How might the 2022 National Hockey League Draft look in a few years?

Draft experts and aficionados often like to re-imagine a draft class several years later. And while the long-term outcome on the 2022 class is still to be determined, it is increasingly looking like the Buffalo Sabres may have found themselves a bargain in the 28th spot.

Forward Jiri Kulich was the third of Buffalo’s three first-round choices last summer as part of an ongoing rebuilding effort; Western Hockey League forward Matthew Savoie went ninth overall and Swedish forward Noah Ostlund was taken at number 16.

The Sabres have every reason to like what they have with Savoie and Ostlund, but it’s Kulich who is producing right now at a level just one step removed from the NHL. The Rochester Americans forward, who does not even turn 19 until April 14, continues to excel as the latest top prospect to come through Buffalo’s AHL program.

“This kid’s 18 years old,” Amerks captain Michael Mersch said, laughing and shaking his head. “It’s crazy. For him to be where he’s at right now, it’s just exciting to think about where he’s going to be when he’s 25, 26.”

Kulich scored twice in Rochester’s 5-2 win over Cleveland on Sunday, closing out the weekend with 21 goals and 19 assists for 40 points in 55 games with the Amerks. He is one of four players in American Hockey League history to score 20 goals in his under-19 season. And his numbers could have been higher had he not missed nearly a month competing in the 2023 IIHF World Junior Championship, where his overtime goal in the semifinals sent Czechia to the gold medal game.

With their top two scorers Brandon Biro (injured) and Lukas Rousek (recalled to Buffalo) out of the lineup, the Amerks will rely even more on Kulich this week as they continue to push towards a playoff spot in the North Division. Cleveland is in town again on Wednesday, followed by a weekend home-and-home showdown with Utica.

Head coach Seth Appert and the Amerks are not new to having elite prospects on their roster. Jack Quinn and JJ Peterka were among the best players in the AHL last season before graduating to Buffalo. Mersch helped to mentor both Quinn and Peterka, and has continued that role with Kulich and another first-rounder, rookie Isak Rosen, in 2022-23.

Kulich came back to Rochester from the World Juniors confident, and that upbeat feeling has not waned.

“I think now I feel more comfortable than maybe the first three months,” Kulich said. “The first month I was always frustrated. I think I’m now more physical. I think my skating is better.”

That confidence did not happen overnight. Kulich and Appert had plenty of conversations — even when they required Appert to turn to Google Translate to convey what he needed to say in Kulich’s native Czech. But it has worked. And Kulich is willing to push himself off the ice as well; his English continues to improve, and he lives on his own.

Now he can help to lead the Amerks into the Calder Cup Playoffs. The stretch drive has brought its own increase in intensity from what Kulich faced early on in coming to the North American game. And each passing round of the Calder Cup Playoffs will only ratchet up that pressure. Last year’s club earned series wins over Belleville and Utica, providing valuable experience in pressure-packed contests for prospects like Quinn, Peterka and Peyton Krebs.

In the meantime, Kulich can continue to make his teammates and the rest of the North Division take notice.

“It’s incredible what he’s doing,” Mersch smiled. “He’s so young. Sometimes you’ve just got to sit back and laugh and enjoy watching him play.”