By A.J. Atchue || for NHL.com
Arturs Kulda, a second-year defenseman with the Chicago Wolves, is steadily growing his game in the hopes of one day becoming an NHL regular. At 6-foot-2, 195 pounds, he can be counted on to provide a strong presence in the defensive zone and start the rush back up ice.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he’s spent the bulk of his time this season playing with a guy who knows a thing or two about the NHL game, and who also happens to check in at three years older than Kulda’s father.
That would be Chris Chelios, he of the three Stanley Cup championships and three Norris Trophies who signed on with the Wolves in October after playing 1,644 games in the National Hockey League.
Chelios, who recently celebrated his 48th birthday, won his first Stanley Cup – with Montreal in 1986 – more than two years before the 21-year-old Kulda was even born.
As you might expect, the experience of playing with such an accomplished veteran has been invaluable to the up-and-coming prospect.
“He’s played a lot, he knows the game, and I’m trying to listen to everything he says,” said Kulda. “He always talks with me on the ice and off the ice, and he’s just a role model for anyone who wants to play the game for a long time.”
Kulda especially credits Chelios with improving his decision-making with the puck in the defensive zone, his positional play and his work on the penalty kill – a situation where the pair is frequently on the ice for Chicago.
“(Chelios) has been a great professor for him, no doubt about it,” said first-year Wolves head coach Don Lever, who previously guided the Hamilton Bulldogs to the 2007 Calder Cup title. “I think he’s been really good for Arturs. And watching him, (the team) sees what it takes to become a world-class athlete.”
But playing with Chelios hasn’t been Kulda’s only unique experience since beginning his professional career.
A native of Riga, Latvia, Kulda was drafted by the parent Atlanta Thrashers in 2006 and joined Chicago in the spring of 2008 after a pair of junior hockey seasons with Peterborough (OHL).
After appearing in five regular-season games down the stretch, Kulda’s defensive abilities impressed the Wolves’ coaching staff enough to give him increased ice time in the playoffs, and he became a key component in Chicago’s run to the 2008 Calder Cup championship.
“If someone had told me at the beginning of the year that I would end it by winning the Calder Cup, I would have never believed it,” Kulda said. “But it was a great (opportunity), and I think I used it well.”
After that successful debut, Kulda first full professional campaign in 2008-09 proved to be more of a struggle, as ankle and knee injuries limited him to 57 games for the Wolves.
Despite the frustration of bouncing in and out of the lineup, Kulda credits his rookie year with allowing him to fully adjust to the pro game and the pro lifestyle – including living on his own – and he entered the 2009-10 campaign readier than ever to improve his skills.
“No matter what happened, (last season) was experience, and this year I came in smarter and stronger,” Kulda said. “I’m more of a defensive defenseman. The main goal for me is not to be scored on. I like to play the body, and I’m not afraid to battle in the corners.”
Kulda’s work on the defensive side of the ice is certainly the hallmark of his game, and he frequently hops over the boards to match up against an opponent’s top offensive unit.
One good measure of a defenseman’s play is his plus/minus number, and it’s probably not a coincidence that Kulda currently leads the entire AHL with a plus-35 rating this season – or that Chelios is tied for second at plus-32.
“He’s always in a solid body position, usually comes up with the puck in one-on-one battles, and he usually has a real solid first pass (out of the defensive zone),” Lever said of Kulda. “And without the puck, he’s just a real strong defensive player.”
It hasn’t been all smooth sailing this year, as the 2009-10 season got out to a rocky start for both Kulda and the Wolves in general. The defenseman was stuck at minus-4 after six games, a span in which Chicago went 1-5-0-0.
Lever and assistant coach Ron Wilson came aboard at that point, and the Wolves now sit atop the West Division at 33-17-0-4 as they look to return to postseason play after a one-year absence.
“They really care about the defensive game, and I think we really started to play better defensively,” Kulda said of his coaches. “And with their experience – they both played in the NHL, they won a Calder Cup together in Hamilton – they know what they’re doing.”
Kulda’s defensive strengths are already well-established, but he’s still learning and developing his game at the offensive end of the ice.
He produced 15 points as a rookie and has equaled that total this year with three goals and 12 assists in 42 games for Chicago, numbers that won’t have him near the top of any defensemen scoring lists.
“You always want to be a better all-around defenseman, and when I get a chance I’m trying to put the puck on net or make a smart play (in the offensive end),” he said.
“The offensive side is probably the one area of the game where he needs some improvement,” Lever said, “and it’s not necessarily scoring points, (but) getting his shot through from the point.”
Kulda got his first taste of NHL action last week, earning a recall to Atlanta for a pair of games prior to the league’s Olympic break. He recorded his first point with an assist on Saturday in a 5-4 shootout loss to the Chicago Blackhawks.
Lever is very high on Kulda’s prospects of ultimately landing an NHL job for the long-term.
“I think he’s really improved (over the course of the season),” Lever said. “He’s got himself in a position where Atlanta is very high on him, and it doesn’t hurt him to be here playing a lot. He just needs to read the game a little bit better offensively, but defensively I think he could pretty well handle anything in the NHL right now.”
And when he gets there, he won’t find many players who developed their game alongside a more experienced and knowledgeable defensive partner.