Jiri Kulich caught the eye of Rochester Americans coach Seth Appert before they even took the ice for their first practice ahead of the Prospects Challenge at LECOM Harborcenter on Wednesday.
Appert watched Kulich compile one of the most productive campaigns by an 18-year-old in AHL history last season, when Kulich scored a team-high 24 goals in the regular season and added seven more during Rochester’s run to the Eastern Conference Finals. It was the sort of success that could convince a player to become complacent.
Kulich took the opposite approach.
“He looks outstanding,” Appert said. “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.”
Kulich’s bid for an NHL roster spot will begin this weekend with the Prospects Challenge, which opens Friday for the Sabres against the Montreal Canadiens. His productivity in the AHL, the work he applied to his defensive game last season, and a shot that was considered world-class the day he was drafted in the first round in 2022 all make him a candidate to crack the Sabres’ lineup despite his age.
Kulich identified added strength as an ingredient that could help him take the next step. He felt the physicality of the AHL early as a rookie and adjusted as the year wore on, scoring 17 of his 24 regular-season goals after the start of February. Rochester’s final playoff series, against a veteran and physically imposing Hershey team, only reinforced his desire to round out his game.
Between the program that Rochester strength and conditioning coach Nick Craven administered for Kulich and his fellow rookies last season and a productive summer, Kulich said he is 16 pounds heavier than he was a year ago.
“I think it was the best summer workout I ever had,” he said.
Now, he gets to apply it to games. Kulich said he is keeping a simple approach to his second training camp, even with the prospect of a potential roster spot looming: work hard and enjoy the game.
“I think now I know it’s going to be hard,” he said. “But that’s why we play hockey. Yeah, second season, I can’t wait. I’m so excited.”
Here are more notes from the first of two Sabres practices ahead of the Prospects Challenge.
1. Defenseman Vsevolod Komarov is out for the event with a lower-body injury, Appert said. Komarov, a fifth-round pick in 2022, signed his entry-level contract in May following a strong season with Quebec of the QMJHL that ended with a run to the Memorial Cup.
“It’s not a major injury,” Appert said. “Just a tweak.”
2. Matt Savoie and Zach Benson – linemates last season with the WHL’s Winnipeg ICE – were reunited on a line for practice on Wednesday. They were joined by Filip Cederqvist on the wing.
The Sabres drafted Benson with the 13th-overall pick this summer, one year after selecting Savoie with the ninth pick. Savoie quickly endorsed the pick to general manager Kevyn Adams.
“I absolutely loved it,” Savoie said. “I mean, we got a lot of chemistry last year, obviously, playing on a line in Winnipeg. He’s a tremendous player. He’s got a lot of skill. He’s real dynamic, so I’m looking forward to playing with him a little bit in the prospects tournament as well.”
3. The Sabres practiced with seven defensemen, all of whom rotated partners throughout the session. Here’s how the forwards lined up: