SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- After scoring 34 goals in the 2014 calendar year, including 10 in the playoffs and four in six Memorial Cup games for the champion Edmonton Oil Kings, Edgars Kulda's draft stock was reportedly on the rise.
His goal and two assists in the championship-game win against the Guelph Storm capped a Memorial Cup MVP performance for the 19-year-old Latvian left wing, and all those late-round draft projections were soon adjusted to third- and fourth-round. Some predicted he could go as high as the second round.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the podium.
Sitting next to his father and brother at the 2014 NHL Draft in Philadelphia, the rounds kept passing by, and Kulda got more and more jittery in his suit and tie. Did he come for nothing? Would he get drafted at all? As groups of fans sitting around him got to know the funny and endearing young man, his story slowly became their quest. They wanted to see him get his NHL sweater.
Fifth round … no. Sixth round … nope. Uh oh.
"My brother was looking at me and saying, 'When will you be drafted, I want to go,'" Kulda said. "I was afraid to go to the washroom, because I knew if I did that would be the moment it happened."
Finally in the seventh, final round, with the 193rd pick, the Arizona Coyotes selected Kulda, providing a storybook finish to a long and nerve-wracking day. All the time spent waiting for his name to be called gave Kulda a chance to groom his one-liners for the press conference.
"They played pretty good music in the arena, so I was just chilling and listening to it," Kulda said. "OK, I was a little nervous. You read in the news that you're supposed to go a little earlier and it starts getting in your head. Of course you get nervous when you go round after round, pick after pick. But in the end it turned out pretty good."
The Coyotes, who had five members of the Oil Kings at their July development camp, including 2012 first-round pick Henrik Samuelsson, are also hoping it turns out "pretty good." Arizona general manager Don Maloney said he felt Kulda showed enough skill and poise to take a chance. Now it's up to the player to show what he can do.
"We saw him last year. You could see he had some skill, but he was a light, European kid who kind of blended in," Maloney said. "This year you could see the growth. He had a solid regular season (30 goals) but he really turned it on in the playoffs, and especially the Memorial Cup. He was a dominant player. I don't know what clicked in, but it couldn't happen at a better time.
"He has to improve his skating a little bit, work on his stride. But stick-on-puck he makes things happen. So at that stage in the seventh round, we thought it was a good swing at the plate for us."
Samuelsson said he thinks Arizona got a steal in the seventh round.
"I kept refreshing the page on the NHL website after the second round and I was shocked he lasted that long," Samuelsson said. "I'm sure the Coyotes were pretty happy to get him. He's such a good player and he plays big in big games."
Before his late-season heroics, Kulda earned some national exposure thanks to the magic of social networking. At the annual "Teddy Bear Toss" at Rexall Place, Kulda scored the first Oil Kings goal of the night, sending thousands of donated teddy bears to the ice in celebration. Asked how he felt about the event, Kulda, whose command of English is still blossoming, stared into the camera and announced, "I'm Edgars Kulda … and I approve this message," before holding up both thumbs.
The video went viral and soon "Kulda's Approved" was a popular catchphrase. Soon enough, everything from Oil King crowns to moose antlers had been Photoshopped on Kulda's head, and it was impossible to stop the groundswell, which reached Arizona in time for his first pro workouts.
"Yeah, I have already taken a few thumbs-up pictures here in camp. It looks like it's going to follow me," Kulda said. "I didn't know it was going to happen, but it's all fun. You don't have to put any pressure in your head about it.
"But if it went away, that would be OK too."
Kulda will turn 20 in November and could return to Edmonton as an overage junior or, if he shows more in training camp, a trip to the American Hockey League is within his grasp.
"He's very clever with the puck and he has a quick stick. He took one step forward, so now we'll see if he can take another," Maloney said. "If he comes in here and it looks like he can play in the American League … that's certainly an option."
By being named the Memorial Cup MVP, Kulda joined some impressive NHL players, including Corey Perry, Taylor Hall, Milan Lucic and Coyotes captain Shane Doan. But there are past tournament MVPs whose careers peaked in their teen years and never reached the NHL. If that befalls Kulda, it won't be from a lack of effort.
"I will play anywhere the team needs me … any position," he said. "Penalty kill? Power play? I can forecheck. You need me to be an energy guy? Sure. Tough guy? Why not, I've had some fights."
Just remember to keep those thumbs tucked in.
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