Kundratek on right track for NHL career
Return to WHL in 2009-10 an important step in defenseman's development
By Dan David, newyorkrangers.com
Two years ago, the Rangers went to the NHL Entry Draft at Ottawa's Scotiabank Place and came away with what might one day be remembered as the single best draft class in team history.
Defenseman Michael Del Zotto, the 2008 first-rounder, is already playing in the NHL with the Blueshirts. Second-rounder Derek Stepan, a center, was the captain of the 2010 U.S. World Junior gold medalist team and the 16th-ranked prospect in The Hockey News' 2010 Future Watch.
Forward Evgeny Grachev, the first of two third-rounders, was ranked No. 21 in Future Watch, while fourth-round pick Dale Weise, Grachev's teammate at Hartford, was the second-leading goal scorer for the AHL Wolf Pack in 2009-10 with a tremendous breakout season.
All four of these players have a chance to be Rangers teammates in the near future along with a fifth player, 20-year-old defenseman Tomas Kundratek, who was actually the first member of that remarkable 2008 draft class to sign an NHL contract with the team.
Kundratek, the second of the Rangers' two third-round picks in 2008, was drafted 15 spots after Grachev at No. 90 overall. The Czech defenseman offered great value at his draft spot, since he had been rated No. 12 among all European skaters by NHL Central Scouting, was a No. 42 overall prospect by Red Line Report, and had a No. 63 overall ranking from The Hockey News.
|Czech defenseman Tomas Kundratek pulled on his Rangers jersey for the first time at the 2008 NHL Entry Draft at Ottawa, where he was the second defenseman taken by the Rangers following the choice of Michael Del Zotto in the opening round.
Within two months of being drafted, Kundratek signed a contract with the Rangers and moved to North America to play for the Medicine Hat Tigers of the Western Hockey League, who had selected him with the 15th overall pick in the 2008 CHL Import Draft. He would go on to spend the past two seasons adjusting to the North American style of hockey in Medicine Hat, Alberta.
Although 2008 was his first year of eligibility for the NHL draft, Kundratek was among the oldest players selected. Born the day after Christmas, he turned 19 early in his first season with the Tigers and played came back to the team for his second season as an "overage" player, which was rare for a European.
"His (standard) eligibility was done, and not too many teams like to bring back an overage player, especially because they are only allowed a certain amount of overagers and Europeans," said Gordie Clark, the Rangers' Director, Player Personnel. "And usually you don't have a European as your overage, but they really wanted him back because they had really liked him."
As an NHL draft prospect, Kundratek was identified as a strong first-passer capable of starting the rush and playing an aggressive game. Over two seasons of major-junior hockey, Kundratek proved the scouts prophetic as a high-assist defenseman who didn't shy away from contact in the often very physical WHL.
"He's a good skater with good mobility who moves the puck well and has a good shot from the point. He has a pretty good all-around game," said Ernie Gare, a Rangers amateur scout who focuses on Western Canada and the U.S. "I think the two years in the Western League have been good for his progression because of the travel and the schedule, where he's playing lots of games and getting a lot of practices in. So he's had a good transition in terms of appreciating the North American game and what you have to do and how you have to compete."
|Tomas Kundratek competed for his native Czech Republic at both the 2008 and 2009 World Junior Championship tournaments, where he had a total of one goal, six assists and 23 shots over 12 games.|
Kundratek showed he was adapting well to a new style of hockey when he emerged as a force on the Rangers' 2009 entry at the Traverse City (Mich.) Prospects Tournament, helping the Blueshirts to three straight victories and a third-place finish.
His best game in Traverse City came against the Atlanta Thrashers prospects, when he scored the game-winning goal in a 4-1 victory that started the three-game streak to close the tournament.
Kundratek's goal, scored on what Clark called a one-time "cannon of a shot" from the point, broke a 1-1 tie at 7:48 of the middle period. It was an impressive play by a defenseman known as a passer rather than a goal-scorer, and Kundrated did more than simply score in that game.
"I remember in that game how he and Evander Kane -- a right defenseman going against a left winger -- had this hitting session going on every time they played against each other," said Clark. "That was really the type of experience we needed him to have."
Following a strong prospects tournament in Michigan, Kundratek came to the Rangers' main training camp. Due to a surplus of young defenseman, he was asked to return to junior to continue his development.
Returning to the Tigers, Kundratek boosted his WHL assists and points totals by dramatic amounts this past season, notching 33 assists along with two goals and 62 penalty minutes in 65 games to rank third in scoring among Medicine hat defensemen.
"Tomas had a good year," said Gare. "Willie Desjardins is the coach there at Medicine Hat. He also coaches the Canadian World Junior team, so Tomas has good coaching. He stepped up his play this year and was more involved physically."
He took his game up a notch in the playoffs, leading all Tigers defensemen in scoring with a goal and five assists in a 12-game run that ended in the second round. His best playoff performance came in a 5-1 win over Kootenay on March 24, when he captured No. 2 Star honors with a goal and an assist.
During the regular season, Kundratek had five multi-point games and was among the Three Star selections seven times. He got three assists, two on the power play, in a 4-3 win at Lethbridge on Dec. 7, but his biggest night came on Jan. 16 at Saskatoon.
In a 3-2 victory over a Blades team that included current Rangers prospects Jyri Niemi and Sam Klassen, Kundratek scored just 22 seconds into overtime for the victory. One week later, he was a hero again in a 9-2 win at Edmonton, setting up a shorthanded goal that opened the scoring, assisting on another goal in the second period, and finishing with a plus-3 rating.
As he looks to begin his professional career in 2009-10, Kundratek will have an opportunity to continue emerging as the NHL player Rangers scouts project him to be while one day skating alongside the other up-and-comers from his draft year.
"I think Tomas has a chance to be a solid defenseman in the NHL," said Gare. "He'll be more of a defensive shutdown guy. I think his skating will allow him to defend against the rush, and he's got enough size and strength to be able to play well defensively in his end. He's someone that's going to make a good first pass out of his zone and be able to defend effectively."