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2022 NHL Draft Profile: Jiri Kulich

Kulich is an intriguing two-way center with a wicked shot

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

So far, I have written profiles of two forwards and two defensemen whose main strengths are different kinds of exciting offensive skills. Some also offer some defensive ability to varying degrees, but generally speaking their primary strength is their offense. They also formed four prospects who are, or I think likely will be, ranked outside of the Leafs’ range at 25th overall but who I think (read: hope) have an outside chance of falling to Toronto on draft day.

Today’s profile is a bit different. It is the first profile I am writing for a prospect that I think will more likely be available in Toronto’s range: Jiří Kulich. He is a Czech center who offers more two-way potential than the others, but still has enough offensive skill to make him real interesting as a first round choice. While this is a low bar to clear at the moment, if the Leafs do draft him he would instantly become their best center prospect.

Let’s dig into what makes him interesting.

THE BASICS: STATS AND CONTEXT

Position: C
League: Czech
Height: 5’11”
Weight: 179 lbs
Birth date: April 14th, 2004

Here are his draft rankings, as of writing this:

  • Bob McKenzie: 40th
  • Will Scouch: 21st
  • Scott Wheeler: 22nd
  • Elite Prospects: 28th
  • Dobber Prospects: 41st
  • Smaht Scouting: 15th

You can see a wide spread of rankings, though I would add the caveat that not all of them are that recent. Bob’s rankings are from January, and Dobber Prospects’ is from early April. Whereas Will Scouch, Elite Prospects, Scott Wheeler and Smaht Scouting all released more recent updates to their rankings in May. So Kulich definitely has some helium down the stretch.

And it’s easy to see why. He played the whole season in the Czech pro league where he Played Against Men(TM). There, he played as a center the whole time and put up a very respectable 9 goals and 14 points in 49 games. He added one point in 3 playoff games before his team was eliminated.

Where Kulich really shined was on the international stage. He played a grand total of 29 games, including as the Captain for the World U18 Championships, at various tournaments for the U18 and U20 teams. In those 29 games, he had 27 goals and 36 points. So scoring goals is definitely the bigger of his offensive strengths than as a playmaker.

That’s evident from the analytics he had in the Czech league as well:

So the basics at the top, in the Czech pro league his position was the 4th line center, and he played an average of 12:06 per game. To translate each category of the bar chart... the left column is individual stats at 5v5 (duh). From top to bottom, it shows:

  • Goals
  • Assists
  • Expected goals
  • Finishing
  • Passing
  • Transitions in the neutral zone

The right column is labeled “Influence of Attacks”, which is just awesome. From top to bottom, it shows:

  • 5v5 offense (‘attack’)
  • 5v5 defense
  • Powerplay
  • Penalty kill (‘weakening’)
  • ..........roleiness? I don’t know about that one lol

Anyways, to summarize what the chart shows, he had an exceptionally high goal total and expected goals. He had a very high rating for transitions as well. His influence on 5v5 offense rated out as very strong as a result. His assist total and his passing rated lower, as did his influence on 5v5 defense and the powerplay. His strength in scoring goals makes sense as his biggest strength, the rest lagging behind doesn’t seem worrisome considering he is playing at a more difficult level in more limited minutes.

All this said, lets dig into the specifics of how he achieves those results at each level he has played.

THE GOOD: TWO-WAY POTENTIAL AND GOAL SCORING

Let’s start with the one I’m sure most people would be more excited by: his goal scoring. Kulich manages to score goals mainly with a variety of skills: skating, shooting, and knowing how to find soft spots in the offensive zone. He isn’t the most skilled puck carrier, as in he won’t be known for his dynamic dekes or play making. But he can blow by many defensemen with his great skating. He is also pretty agile, and able to use cuts and crossovers to deke around defenders at speed. That helps him drive a lot of positive transition value, in addition to being really good in his own end to get the puck back and start it up the ice.

Once he is in the offensive zone, he plays as a more reliable center by playing high. This plays to his two strengths: being a reliable two-way center, but also letting his linemates look to set him up in the slot where his shot can do damage. His wrist shot won’t rival Matthews, but it is quick, hard and accurate. He also has a pretty lethal one timer.

At the World U18 championship, Kulich scored 9 goals in 6 games and was named MVP of the tournament. Many of those came on the powerplay, where the Czechs would frequently run set plays to set up his one timer. It worked well, to say the least.

The really encouraging thing to me is that Kulich is already doing well in the Czech pro league, in terms of scoring goals, driving scoring chances and offensive transitions. Even in some areas that seem more troublesome, a lot of it is easy to see him projecting as much better than he was as a 17 year old. Physically speaking, 6’0” is an average height but he can definitely stand to add some strength. You could see him trying to do the right things, but he was pretty often easily shoved aside or neutralized by bigger, stronger men. This was especially true defensively, where he could be all over his man but just not physically able to shut him down... not yet.

And that’s where the big potential lies. His skating, positioning and defensive reads help him make a lot of smart plays to intercept passes and break up plays, then start moving it back up the ice in the right direction. He plays very responsibly in a supporting role, and his skating helps him get back into play if he somehow winds up behind the puck.

Here is a blurb from Future Considerations’ Czech scout:

Kulich does not cheat defensively. He sprints back immediately after the puck possession changes in the offensive or neutral zone. He takes very smart routes, supports the play and collects lot of loose pucks. In the defensive zone, Kulich anticipates very good, he scans the whole zone, shoulder checks often, and in my opinion he is getting caught puck watching very rarely. He plays tight to his checks and defends with active stick. His defensive game still needs refinements, especially when playing in a situation against numerous advantage or when forced to switch covered opponent, but in my opinion Kulich is on his way to becoming very good two-way forward.

On defense Kulich plays a relentless, dogged pursuit style when his man has the puck. He has the skating to keep up with almost anyone, and he has a good sense of anticipation for what they may try to shake him off. Here’s a clip from the shortened World Juniors where he was sticking to Mason McTavish — the 6’1”, 207 lbs 3rd overall pick last year — like velcro and shutting him down along the boards.

What is impressive about the clip is not just that he erased a bigger, more experienced and highly regarded prospect and made it look easy. McTavish had a good head of steam going, and Kulich picked him up at a stand still when McTavish circled up high. Despite that, Kulich’s explosive skating let him get up to speed very quickly, so he could stick with him stride for stride and push him outside the whole time.

This is the kind of thing he also does in the Czech pro league — or rather, he tries to. This is where adding more strength will let him shut down bigger, older players like that with more ease. It will also help him more easily fight off opponents in the dirty areas when he’s on offense, and to physically stop and shut down opponents when he’s on defense will help his game go to another level. That’s the potential he offers.

You can see more breakdowns and highlights of his defensive game in this profile of Kulich’s U18 tournament from EP Rinkside (paywall) but also in this video profile from Will Scouch:

THE FLAWS: OFFENSIVE UPSIDE

While it is easy to see Kulich’s two-way upside in general, between his skating, shot and defense, the questions about his game are based on the high-end upside of his offense. I always like a guy who has an elite shot and can score in different ways — scoring goals is arguably the best thing a player can be good at. But the reason why Kulich isn’t necessarily going to be ranked that high — certainly not in the tier of the top 10 guys — is because his offensive game has some holes.

When Kulich has the puck, his skill lacks any elite, dynamic play making. He can make some dekes, but he typically tries to just skate fast in a more or less straight line. He doesn’t use cut backs, he doesn’t really try and manipulate defenders with a deke or fake. He’ll need to add some more tricks when he has the puck, because if he gets to the NHL he will face much tougher and faster defenders who he can’t just beat with speed. But if he does develop a more diverse toolset, it will make his offensive potential more likely to be impactful in the NHL.

The other issue is that Kulich’s passing looks like it will project as average. He can make some simple passes, which can still be effective and often is the best play to make. The reason why he seemed to rely so much on carrying the puck with speed through the neutral zone may be because when he tries passing, he misses and turns it over a frustrating amount of the time. This is another area that can limit his offensive game, especially on transitions. If defenders know that Kulich with the puck is not a real threat to deke around them and is not a great passer, it’s easier to handle him on transitions. You pressure him and force him to dump it or make him turn it over.

That’s why, as of now, it is difficult to see him being a first line center. He could maybe be a second line center, one who plays more defensively and helps get the puck into the offensive zone. It would be especially fun to pair him with a playmaking winger, like, say Marner. Someone who can do the heavy lifting in the offensive zone and try and feed him in the slot where his shot can have an impact. Kulich can do the heavy lifting in the defensive zone, and on transitions. But even as a second line center, that would be the most optimal outcome, and one where he would need some good linemates to compensate for his weaknesses.

OVERALL ASSESSMENT

While there is some question about his offensive upside and how that could limit his ultimate projection for the future, what he does project as with his strengths is still worthy of a late first round pick. His skating, defense and shot makes him a reasonably safe pick to turn into a defensive forward in the bottom six — basically what Engvall and Kampf do for the Leafs now.

But with any kind of offensive potential realized, he could turn into an all-situations middle six guy. His shot could play up at least on a second powerplay unit, his skating and defense makes him valuable on the PK, and his full assortment of skills make him useful at even strength on a more defensively focused line. But not defensive in the sense that they just try and play opponents to a null-draw, where all offense goes to die. He could offer enough upside to transition from defense to offense with the occasional snipe going in.

And Kulich seems somewhat safe to be available in the Leafs’ range. Bob’s rankings had him at 40th in January, and while Kulich has some hype as a late riser thanks to his U18s MVP, the same is true for other prospects who were already ranked ahead of him. It is difficult to believe that his rankings will jump by 20+ spots to take him outside of the Leafs’ range. Assuming that none of the prospects who I have in the tier above this range fall to Toronto instead, Kulich is one of my favourite choices for the Leafs’ 25th overall pick.

And, interestingly, Jiri Kulich is one of the players the Leafs were reportedly confirmed to have spoken to at the Draft Combine. Hmmm....

Poll

Would you draft Kulich if he’s available when Toronto picks?

  • 27%
    Oh hell yes
    (40 votes)
  • 63%
    Maaaaaaaaaaaaaybe
    (92 votes)
  • 9%
    Nah
    (14 votes)
146 votes total Vote Now