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2022 NHL Draft prospect profile: Jiří Kulich’s versatility is turning heads

A deeper look at Jiří Kulich, one of the fastest risers of the draft class, and how his strengths could suit the Habs’ needs perfectly.

Germany v Czechia: Preliminary Round Group A - 2022 IIHF World Junior Championship Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images

The 2022 NHL Draft could be one of the deepest classes since 2015. All the way through the end of the second round, there are interesting options to select from for NHL teams looking for interesting projects with either rare tools or promising upside.

Jiří Kulich, as it happens, has both.

Birthplace: Kadan, Czechia
Date of birth: April 14, 2004
Shoots: Left
Position: Centre/Left Wing
Height: 6’0
Weight: 172 lbs.
Team: HC Energie Karlovy Vary (Extraliga)

The Czech forward earned nine goals and five assists in 49 games in his country’s top professional league, the most among all under-20 skaters as a 17-year-old. After a first-round exit by HC Energie Karlovy Vary’s men’s team in which Kulich earned an assist, the prospect was sent down to their Junior team to participate in its end-of-season and playoff run. He earned four points in his second game with them, and went on to earn five points in four games in yet another first-round exit.

After that, the prospect joined Czechia’s World Under-18 Championship squad where he was deployed in a top-line role. The top power-play unit revolved around Kulich’s tremendous shot, as many set plays were put in place to set him up for a one-timer from the top of the circles. The forward finished the tournament with nine goals and two assists in only six games as a result.

Kulich showed what he could do with top playing time in this tournament, displaying his offensive weaponry, his tremendous shouldering speed, and his refined defensive involvement against even the strongest U18 squads in the international event. His two games against Team USA were a testament to that, as the prospect had a couple of brilliant defensive moments where he would catch a defender flat-footed on a contested puck, or read a cross-ice pass perfectly and get in the way. Even though Czechia lost both games, Kulich was still impressive to watch.

At the U20 Worlds, he managed a goal against Canada and an assist against Finland, while continuing to display the defensive reactiveness that makes him such a unique forward in this draft class. Rarely does a prospect play as well defensively as Kulich does when competing above his age group, and his compete level is a major reason for this success.

He keeps his feet moving through checks, using crossovers to angle away and then toward opponents after poking the puck out of their reach. He has the balance and coordination to retain pucks with a player or two on his back when closing on the goaltender for a partial break, and has the separation speed to get in those situations to start with. Although his stickhandling at high speeds when facing his opponents’ defensive formations can falter, his hands and edgework in any other situation benefit his intensity and tendency to cut across his opponents’ hands.

His playmaking isn’t top-notch, as he rarely looks to pass pucks into dangerous areas, preferring to carry them there himself. His give-and-go game could use some work, as there are occasions for him to delegate and use his skating to find a pocket, but these are tools that pro hockey will bring to him gradually. It’s an adjustment that video coaching can likely fix, as he does show the intelligence and mapping to find the right lanes in transition and use the boards on the cycle.

He’s played both centre and wing this season, and has adapted his game to either situation. On the wing, he used his speed to be the rush-leader and drive wide, and at centre he circled down closer to his defencemen on breakouts to offer support and a pressure release point against hard forecheckers. This is yet another example of the off-puck situational intelligence that Kulich regularly displays.

The main knock on Kulich’s game is his lack of high-end physicality. There were many moments this season, especially against men, in which Kulich would get outmuscled in puck battles too easily. This isn’t always an issue of lack of muscle: leverage is the biggest differentiator between a good puck-battler and a bad one when ignoring size and weight, and Kulich doesn’t show much in that area. His stick positioning and constantly moving feet compensate for that against Junior competition so far, but he’ll need to do more as he steps up the professional ladder.

Another issue is his propensity for playing pucks out of his zone as soon as possible, rather than taking his time to scan and identify the best option. Especially under pressure in his own zone, he can sometimes ignore the safe, effective plays such as a pass to his defender, in favour of boarding the puck out and onto his opponent’s stick in the neutral zone. These plays may momentarily kill the opponent’s offensive cycle, but only serves to set them up for another one.

Rankings

DobberProspects: #41
Elite Prospects: #52
FCHockey: #22
Hockey Prospect: #30
McKeen’s: #30
Craig Button (TSN): #14
Bob McKenzie (TSN): #40
NHL Central Scouting: #13 (European skaters)
Scott Wheeler (The Athletic): #41

All in all, Kulich’s style of play is very unique as a versatile, defensive-minded goal-scoring forward with the ability to play both centre and wing. The high-end skating and decent stickhandling when escaping pressure make his upside pop more than a player who the Habs have in the system with similar assets, Jan Myšák. The main issue with Myšák is his inability to get creative off the puck and separate from his opponents with his mobility, whereas that seems to be Kulich’s most prominent strength.

If he is still available in the mid-30s to early 40s, he is absolutely worth a shot and would suit the Habs’ needs tremendously — especially for what he offers as a left-winger. He might even be worth a shot with the late first-round pick acquired in the Tyler Toffoli trade, especially if Kent Hughes catches wind that he might be unavailable when the Habs hit the podium again to open the second day of proceedings.

There’s a slim chance he reaches a top line, which makes him worth the first-round pick, but he’s also a safe bet to become a middle-six scoring winger down the line. It’s a worthwhile investment with a pick in the 30s, and an even better one a bit later, especially since the Habs need left-shot wingers.