The 2022 SB Nation Mock NHL Draft is fully underway, meaning it’s finally time for Blues fans to turn their attention away from another playoff exit and towards draft season. In previous years, the GameTime team has deviated from Doug Armstrong’s Draft style, snagging Brendan Brisson — who scored 8 points in 7 AHL games after tearing things up at the University of Michigan this season — in 2020’s mock draft and Matthew Coronato — who easily made the ECAC All-Rookie team this year after scoring 36 points in 34 games — in 2021’s.
Both players are on the shorter end of modern-day forward builds and play with a pace and skill that the Blues haven’t always prioritized. But this year, the GameTime team was able to select the perfect player to fit into Craig Berube and Doug Armstrong’s physical style. Jiří Kulich is physically mature and plays a powerful power-forward style of hockey that cements his high floor, but has a layer of untapped potential according to many NHL scouts that could lead to a tantalizing ceiling as well.
St. Louis Selects Jiří Kulich 23rd Overall
Height — 5’11.25”
Weight — 178 lbs
Position — Center
Handedness — Left
Personal Ranking — 19th Overall
Bob McKenzie’s Ranking — 18th Overall
Consensus Ranking — 22nd Overall
NHL Central Scouting Ranking — 13th Overall among European Skaters
Kulich fought-and-clawed his way into First Rounds in the first half of the season. He was never a flashy player but his physical presence and work ethic forced the eye of scouts. But his momentum didn’t stop with a seat in the mid-20’s. Kulich’s stock continued to blossom on the back of dominant international performances, peaking with his 9 goals and 11 points in only 6 games at the U18 Worlds. Those tallies ranked him first in goals and third in points in the entire tournament and got NHL teams screaming his name.
Unlike many of the top-scorers in this draft class, Kulich’s scoring isn’t reliant on any flashy skill. He’s a hard-nosed scorer through-and-through, excelling at creating space to use his wicked shot or dominating the lower-slot to win out any rebounds.
Jiri Kulich (#25 White) has a wicked shot. pic.twitter.com/dtXnwU8ryf— Gabe Foley (@NHLFoley) June 30, 2022
In space, Kulich’s shot may be his most dangerous asset. It’s hard with a quick release and, generally, great accuracy. This makes him a tremendous addition to the power-play, which forces the other team to concede room to Kulich. But his shot is plenty good enough to dominate in one-on-one situations as well.
But that’s not to say his shot is the calling card of his game. Far from it, in fact. Kulich, even in his sub-6’0” frame, is instead apart of the hefty crop of power-forwards in this year’s class. He was deployed all season long as a dominant slot presence, making quick reactions and solid tipping a hallmark of his game. Like in the above clips, Kulich found a sneaky scoring edge when opponents turned their back on him and gave him even a morsel of space to work with. But when he is crowded, he uses strong physical play to stay present and make things work.
This physical presence combines with incredible tenacity to make Kulich’s play along the boards, and in the defensive zone, frankly better than everyone else’s on the ice. He’s a hard worker that knows how to grind opponents down to the bone and then take advantage of their staggered pace to create chances.
That should all sound familiar to Blues fans: it’s the exact style that led the Blues to their 2019 Cup. Kulich isn’t a special breed of flashy skill or undeniable pace. He’s a smart, hard-working center who plays the middle lane with confidence and tenacity. Or as Jakub Hromada of RecruitScouting, one of the top Czechia public-sector scouts, put it...
Jiří Kulich is a goal-scoring forward from Czechia with terrific speed. He can use his pace while edging around opponents or just carrying the puck through the neutral zone. The most important thing is he can combine his shot and speed, that’s when he’s the most dangerous. He’s pretty decent defensively and will find a role in the NHL [because of it]...
Questions Around Kulich
That doesn’t mean there’s no questions around Kulich, though. As mentioned, he’s a dominant middle-lane option who finds space well enough in the slot to turn any puck-touch into a scoring opportunity. But outside of that, Kulich’s game isn’t entirely fleshed-out. This is a concern that some NHL teams are bringing to the forefront, with many demanding he move to North American hockey quickly if they draft him. This would give the team a chance to branch out Kulich’s lateral ability and pace-of-play in a way that the Czechia Extraliga doesn’t offer.
The CHL Import Draft is looming and will be a great indicator of if Kulich will come over. Are teams confident enough in their ability to reel him in high or will he be stuck in the Czech Republic, a country that certainly promotes his middle-lane style but little else?
The potential for a CHL run opens a ton of potential for Kulich’s game. If he can come over quickly and add a layer of speed to his game, there’s a confident Joe Pavelski comparison to be made. Both players live in the slot in the offensive zone but have the physical wherewithal and work ethic to make things happen in the corners. Both have an eye for rebounds and tips but can create space for a hard shot or make clean through-passes if need be. Other scouts have compared Kulich’s style — with a little more pace and gusto — to Josh Norris of the Ottawa Senators: another shot-first center with tenacity and a quick release.
But if he doesn’t come over, and stays in the Czechia Extraliga for another year or two, Kulich is bound to end up in a similar role to, say, David Backes. While Backes has 4 inches on Kulich, staying in Europe would force Kulich to add considerable mass, cementing him as a slot-first deployment where his ability to shove around opponents and fight for dirty goals would reign supreme.
It’s worth noting that all of these comparisons are only stylistic and not based on potential.
So Why Kulich?
Of course, all of this begs the question: why Kulich? The Blues are set at center, with Robert Thomas’ emergence blending beautifully with Ryan O’Reilly and Brayden Schenn. But the latter two options are aging quickly. Kulich is, roughly, three years from confidently jumping into an NHL roster, which would see him joining in O’Reilly’s 34-year-old season and Schenn’s 33-year-old season.
If the Blues still have Berube around when that happens, they’ll be scouring for hard-nosed centers to fill the void that these two will inevitably leave. Kulich is the perfect man for the job, embodying many of the traits that Berube has tried to force out of the Blues in his years here.
It’s worth noting, though, that none of the sources close to GameTime expect Kulich to be available when the Blues make their pick. He’s simply too highly-regarded by NHL teams right now. If he isn’t there, the Blues have been closely linked to Nathan Gaucher of the QMJHL and Filip Bystedt of the SHL: two more hard-nosed centers, although both of them have the size to back it up.
No matter what, the Blues selection will be a trend-setting one to be sure. Bill Armstrong isn’t around to run the show on Draft day anymore, meaning Doug Armstrong is going to have to lean on his scouting team just a bit more this year. Will he stick with the pattern of big-bodied forwards with heavy shots? Or will Robert Thomas’ breakout year prove the worth of speed and skill?
For more on Kulich, check out Eyes on the Prize’s breakdown of him.