Kundratek building a base for NHL career
Czech defenseman made key strides in his first pro season in Connecticut
• Your View: Can Kundratek Be the Next Sauer?
By Dan David, newyorkrangers.com
When Rangers prospect Tomas Kundratek was an 8-year-old boy growing up in the Czech Republic, a young defenseman from his native country broke into the NHL as a 20-year-old rookie with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
That Czech defenseman was future NHL All-Star Tomas Kaberle, who is now playing with Boston in the Stanley Cup Final. Kaberle was an inspirational figure for Kundratek as he began to dream of one day becoming an NHL defenseman himself.
"I always liked how well he (Kaberle) played as a defenseman with those really good passing skills," Kundratek recalled of his early interest in the NHL in general and Kaberle in particular. "Every kid from the Czech Republic or any European country really wants to one day play in the best league in the world. I started thinking about it and watching NHL games at probably around age 8 or 9."
Kaberle's success wasn't the only thing that got Kundratek hooked on the NHL, because he also had video games to thank for that.
"My brother and I were always playing NHL games on the PlayStation. I usually played as the Dallas Stars, but I don't even know why," said Kundratek, who never had a favorite NHL team before he was drafted by the Rangers three years ago. "I didn't even where Dallas was, but I figured out at that time that the Stars and the Carolina Hurricanes were the best teams to have in the PlayStation game, so I usually picked Dallas."
Throughout his early hockey years with club teams in his hometown of Prerov, Kundratek aspired to follow in Kaberle's footsteps, and like his favorite player, he had arrived as a full-time player in the Czech Extraliga team by the age of 17.
|Rangers prospect Tomas Kundratek has spent three seasons in the Rangers organization adjusting to North American hockey and chasing an NHL dream that began during childhood in the Czech Republic.|
Ranked much higher than his draft position by most scouting services, Kundratek had come into the 2008 draft at Ottawa with stellar credentials, including the first of his two appearances in the World Junior Championship tournament. He was also NHL Central Scouting’s highest-rated Czech player in his draft year -- ranking 12th overall among European skaters.
Even going in Round 3 was no small achievement for a Czech defenseman, since even Kundratek’s hero Kaberle had been an eighth-round pick a dozen years earlier. Following the draft and a trip to the Rangers' 2008 Prospect Development Camp, Kundratek chose a different path from Kaberle’s -- heading straight to North America for a two-year career with the Medicine Hat Tigers of the Western Hockey League.
"I knew I had a lot to learn about speaking English and also the style of hockey, because that is totally different," said Kundratek of his decision to play major-junior. “Before I came over I had already played two seasons in the top Czech league against men, and I was wondering what it was like to play in Canada."
Last year, Kundratek turned pro with the Rangers and spent the entire season in the American Hockey League on the Connecticut Whale roster
His rookie year in the AHL was a learning experience. Kundratek scored two goals, had 10 assists, and posted an even plus-minus rating in 70 games, but the stats hardly tell his story. He showed a steady progression learning the pro game and made a big comeback to the team after missing 10 games with serious virus that sidelined him for the last two weeks of February and the first two of March.
One of Kundratek's most memorable moments came on Dec. 1, when he forced overtime at Worcester by tying the game 1-1 with only 4:20 left in the third period. He had scored his first AHL goal just over a month earlier, but the one at Worcester, which earned him No. 3 star honors, was a reminder of the offensive upside that has always been a part of his game.
|Defenseman Tomas Kundratek spent his rookie pro season with the Connecticut Whale last year and learned a lot about what he will need to do to one day play in the NHL with the Rangers, particularly in terms of how to approach off-season conditioning.|
Perhaps the statistic that says the most about Kundratek's rookie pro season is this one: In 2010-11, his numbers were remarkably similar to those of current Rangers defenseman Michael Sauer during Sauer's first year at Hartford. Sauer, who had also played in the WHL for the same Medicine Hat program as Kundratek, posted 11 points in 71 games as an AHL rookie, while Kundratek had 12 points in 70 games.
So while Kundratek's role model as a youngster was Kaberle, today -- as a 21-year-old working his way toward an NHL career -- he might also look to Sauer for inspiration. Sauer developed his game at the AHL level, refining all the tools that made him so NHL-ready this past season. By following Sauer's example, Kundratek could one day also be able to enter hockey's top league without missing a beat.
Gordie Clark, the Rangers' Director, Player Personnel, is quick to bring up Sauer's name when discussing Kundratek, because Sauer’s experience shows that once a defenseman can master the position's nuances at the AHL level, the groundwork is often in place for an NHL career.
Connecticut head coach Ken Gernander, who also had Kundratek on his roster at three Traverse City Prospects Tournaments, agrees with Clark and says Kundratek has been engaged in a learning process at the pro level.
"First and foremost, he's a pretty competitive kid who skates well," Gernander said of Kundratek. "But defense is obviously a tough position. There are a lot more reads and those types of plays to be made. Whereas forwards can get top marks for forechecking and hard work, I think defense is a little tougher position because you have to make those reads, and any mistake you make is probably magnified due to the fact that there is nobody to cover up for you apart from the goalie. I think sometimes it takes defensemen a little bit longer (to reach the NHL) than it would for a forward."
Clark said that the work Kundratek puts in both on and off the ice this summer will go a long way toward helping him realize those NHL dreams he formed as an 8-year-old.
|Tomas Kundratek has received much of his early coaching in the Rangers organization from Ken Gernander, right, who said he has been very impressed with Kundratek's competitiveness level.|
Kundratek fully recognizes the importance of his current off-season training. Even getting him on the phone can be a challenge this summer, since he is spending so much time on the ice and in the gym. He said that as a pro player last year, he realized just why conditioning is so critical.
"Every guy is on the highest level and is trying to work their way from the AHL to the NHL, so everybody is playing for the call-up and fighting for a spot," said Kundratek. "They are men, and everybody is stronger and faster.”
Conditioning was just one of the many things Kundratek had to learn. Fortunately, he had a veteran player more than happy to mentor him.
“It was really hard coming from junior, but I think I had really good teammates who also helped me,” he said. “When I started in my first six games, Wade Redden was the guy who probably helped me the most. He did so much to help me with the adjustment."
Kundratek said he is also grateful to the Rangers for helping ease his transition to North America. He remembers arriving at the Prospect Development Camp in 2008 unable to speak English and says he'll never forget how warmly he was received even before he began the adjustment to a new style of hockey.
He also credits the Rangers for helping him make a difficult decision at a critical point in his career.
In 2009, after completing his first season at Medicine Hat and then turning in a strong performance at Traverse City, a 19-year-old Kundratek was very eager to play in the AHL. Clark and others in the organization felt he would be better served by a final season of major-junior, so Kundratek went back to Medicine Hat to continue his development. Now knowing what the AHL is really like, he feels a return to the WHL was the very best move he could have made at the time.
One of the things Kundratek developed in Medicine Hat was a physical toughness that doesn’t always come easily for European-trained players. Over his first two years playing on North American rinks, he posted 125 penalty minutes in 116 WHL games.
"I like it," Kundratek said of the smaller ice surface. "It's way different and faster with a lot of hitting. I like that style."
Those words are no surprise to his coach from last season.
"I think one of Tomas' strengths is his competitiveness," said Gernander. "He really competes and he's an aggressive type of personality out of there. I think he was definitely best-served by playing those two years of junior hockey so he got more acclimated to the North American style of play."
The competitive Kundratek has a very clear sense of the player he strives to be on every shift next season.
"I always want to make good passes and make a good, smart play on defense. I also like to play hard in the corners and be a physical player," he said. "Next season I would like to work harder on the offensive part of the game and put up bigger numbers, but I also want to play really well in the defensive zone, make a good first pass over the blue line, and join the rush. I'd like to be able to do a little bit of everything."