Sabres prospect notebook: Jiri Kulich’s inevitable breakthrough, Viktor Neuchev’s rise and more

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Before the Rochester Americans started a three-game homestand last week, coach Seth Appert was confident Jiri Kulich and Isak Rosen would start scoring again. Since returning from the World Junior Championships, Kulich had just two goals and eight assists heading into that homestand. Rosen, meanwhile, had separate goalless streaks of eight and six games since the beginning of February.

That was notable for two players who burst onto the scene in the AHL last season because of their scoring. And both started this season on a hot scoring run, too. That’s why they earned a call-up to Buffalo before the new year. But the grind of a tough division has made the second-half production a bit slower.

“It was hard to trust myself at times, but I find a way how to play and how to help my team for a win that is not just scoring goals,” Kulich said. “I have to learn how to play D-zone, how to hit people, be physical and stuff like that.”

Appert said last season he was putting Kulich and Rosen in advantageous offensive situations. They got the easier matchups and more offensive zone faceoffs. They also didn’t get as many minutes per game last season, which meant they had more energy for offense. But this season, they’ve needed to be the team’s play drivers. That has meant 20-plus minutes a night playing against the other team’s top lines and spending time on the penalty kill.

“Their overall game is light years better,” Appert said.

The Sabres aren’t at the same point in their rebuild as they were when JJ Peterka and Jack Quinn were developing in Rochester. At that point, those two could jump into vacant spots in the NHL lineup and learn on the fly. That’s not the case for Kulich and Rosen. They need to be able to help Buffalo win in order to get a spot at the top level. That’s led to frustration for Kulich and Rosen at times, but it’s also creating a healthy hunger that’s forcing them to round out their game. Amerks assistant Vinny Prospal said Rosen has a top-three hockey IQ on the team and that’s why he’s been a strong penalty killer for them.

“If you’re middle six, you have to check, you have to penalty kill, you have to win puck battles and you have to win faceoffs, you have to be good defensively,” Appert said. “Otherwise they don’t need you.”

Sure enough, the production has returned for Kulich and Rosen in the last three games. Rosen missed one game with an injury but had goals in both games he played and three points total. Kulich has four points in his last three games.

Prospal, who is in his first year as an assistant with the Amerks, has been able to connect with Kulich. Like Kulich, he’s from Czechia. That’s been an asset as Kulich continues to adjust to the pro game and try to push for a spot in the NHL. Prospal knows the path Kulich is traveling and the challenges that come with it.

“Sometimes it’s a roller coaster,” Prospal said. “It’s his second year here. Most of the time the story is it’s really tough to back up the really good first year he had. He’s been up and down with his production, but he’s trending in the right direction.”

Kulich is eager to get to the NHL, but the staff in Rochester is trying to keep him focused on the present. The Amerks are in a playoff race, and Kulich is still the team’s leading scorer with 19 goals this season. But Kulich also recently got some added motivation for his summer training. The Sabres will be opening next season with two games in Kulich’s home country. Kulich’s face lights up when he thinks about the idea of wearing a Sabres jersey in Czechia on opening night. Friends and family inundated him with messages when they heard the news. Prospal has a simple way of keeping him grounded, though.

“Right now I will tell him f— that,” Prospal said with a smile. “Don’t even worry about that. You are here right now. Game 60 of our season is tomorrow. Let’s worry about the next game. I know he will get in great shape. He always has. He loves to train. He loves to practice and work on all areas of his game. But for now, he needs to worry about what we’re doing.”

Viktor Neuchev on the rise

Viktor Neuchev’s first season in the AHL should have him firmly on the NHL radar. The 2022 third-round pick has 10 goals and 16 assists this season and has made a major impression on Appert and his staff.

“He’s just been on a rocket ship,” Appert said.

“His capacity to work has been insane, one of the highest on the team. And then the play comes with it.”

Neuchev clearly benefited from playing 57 games in the KHL last season. Being around professionals on a daily basis and playing at that level of competition has helped his transition to the Amerks. Appert said once the coaching staff was able to explain to him what was required in terms of extra time before and after practice, Neuchev embraced it. If the Sabres have hit on him, that will be an added bonus to their already deep prospect pool.

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Viktor Neuchev’s first season in the AHL should have him firmly on the NHL radar. (Frank Jansky / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Nikita Novikov still has room to grow

Nikita Novikov is another player who benefited from spending a lot of time in the KHL. He played over 100 professional games in Russia before joining the Amerks this season and he’s still only 20 years old. In Scott Wheeler’s latest prospect rankings at The Athletic, he had Novikov as the Sabres’ seventh-best prospect, which is saying something in the league’s best prospect pool. Nokikov was a sixth-round pick but has shown the potential to be an NHL defenseman. He has 18 points as an AHL rookie.

“His instincts for the game offensively are way above what you would expect for his draft place,” Appert said.

The challenge, Appert said, is developing Novikov physically. He has a massive, 6-foot-4-inch frame but still needs to add the necessary muscle to take full advantage of it.

“He sees the pass, but sometimes the pass isn’t hard enough to get through the seam that he sees because he doesn’t have all the proper coordinator and technique and all of those things,” Appert said. “He has a big rangy body and sometimes it just takes time to come into it. He gets himself into better situations offensively five-on-five than any defenseman on the team. His ability to finish those plays is just not hard enough. He doesn’t get it off quick enough. He’s working at it, but it takes time.”

Anton Wahlberg joins the Amerks

Anton Wahlberg’s season wrapped up in Sweden, and he was scheduled to get to Rochester late Sunday night or early Monday morning. Appert didn’t anticipate him being ready to play in Rochester’s game on Wednesday but said there’s a chance he could get in the lineup over the weekend. The 18-year-old had five goals and five assists playing in Sweden’s top league this season. His size and net-front presence should help him differentiate himself from other prospects in Buffalo’s system.

“I was surprised he was around when we got him in the second round,” Appert said. “The nice thing for him is he’s played pro hockey against men and that’s an advantage. He had a lot of success at (the) world juniors, so he’s played on big stages.”

Matt Savoie is on a tear

Matt Savoie wrapped up his regular season with a four-point game to finish with 71 points in 34 games in the WHL. He’ll now get to go on a Memorial Cup run with Moose Jaw, but Savoie’s season has already been sensational. Back in the fall, Savoie had hopes of making the Sabres out of training camp. He got hurt during rookie camp, got a rehab stint in the AHL and then a brief debut with the Sabres before they sent him back to junior. He then got traded from Wenatchee to Moose Jaw and didn’t miss a beat. Despite some injuries and a lot of moving around, Savoie has taken another step this season. He won’t join Rochester until his WHL season wraps up, and Moose Jaw has a chance to make a run. Savoie could push for a Sabres roster spot next season. His speed, competitiveness and willingness to get to the front of the net are all traits Buffalo could use in the NHL lineup. Savoie just needs to show he can hold up physically, which has been the issue for the last couple of years.

A few to watch in the NCAA tournament

The Sabres will have four of their prospects playing in the NCAA tournament that starts this weekend. Gavin McCarthy (2023 third round) will be playing for Boston University when they play RIT on Thursday at 5 p.m. McCarthy scored his first collegiate goal in the Hockey East Championship over the weekend.

Maxim Strbak (2023 second round) and Michigan State play against Matteo Costantini (2020 fifth round) and Western Michigan on Friday at 5 p.m. And Aaron Huglen (2019 fourth round) and Minnesota will play Thursday at 8 p.m. against Minnesota.

(Top photo of Jiri Kulich: Isaiah Vazquez / Getty Images)

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