|Chicago Wolves rookie defenseman Arturs Kulda has formed a successful pairing with teammate Joel Kwiatkowski during the Calder Cup Playoffs.
Bid on 2008 Calder Cup Finals Game - Worn Jerseys and Game - Used Pucks
Kwiatkowski is 31 and has seen much of what pro hockey has to offer. Kulda is 19, is still learning English and has skated in all of 25 pro games.
And yes, the match had its mentoring aspects, with Kwiatkowski keeping an eye on his younger teammate and making sure he was OK. But much like his short stretch with the Wolves on the ice at the end of the season, Kulda had some settling influence off it as well.
So to kill time most nights, Kulda would give as much as he got in the storytelling department. Nothing too special, maybe some tales of growing up in Latvia, or just thoughts about what someone of his generation might be thinking.
"There's quite an age difference between us. You try to find common ground," Kwiatkowski said. "He's always about the rock and roll, and the girls. It makes me feel younger a little bit. I bug him, (say) 'Oh, stay focused.' It's all in fun."
Maybe it's coincidence, but Kwiatkowski played with the spring of a rookie himself in the playoffs, tying an AHL mark for a defenseman by scoring in seven-straight games.
And Kulda has been right in lockstep with him, playing in 20 of the team's postseason contests. He ignored the pressure of the AHL's hottest moments to sidestep the typical rookie potholes and help dampen the production of opponents' top lines.
"He's playing great. He's one of the better defensemen in the league. It's my pleasure to be playing with him," Kulda said on the off day between Games 3 and 4 of the Calder Cup Final. "We have good chemistry with each other. Every time, we relax before games. Maybe my stories are helping him play well."
The 6-foot-2 Kulda, a seventh-round pick by the Atlanta Thrashers in the 2006 Draft, came to the Wolves with an understanding about what it takes to hold up his bargain in a Grade-A defensive pairing. His partner in Peterborough of the OHL this season was Zach Bogosian, who is expected to be a top selection in this year's Draft.
Bogosian paced the team with 61 points; Kulda contributed 34 points and led the team with a plus-9 rating.
"I'm trying to learn every time. I'm watching things he can do, trying to do them too," Kulda said. "Mostly I was watching his offensive skills. He is very good with the puck."
Kulda figured to do little but observe when he joined the juggernaut Wolves at the end of the season. But Wolves coach John Anderson, impressed with Kulda's poise and decision-making, tossed him into a heavy rotation of 16-17 minutes per game.
"When he came to us here, we said, let's use him," said Chicago assistant coach Todd Nelson, who worked with Kulda in rookie camp. "We liked the way he passed the puck in practice. We kept waiting for his game to falter a bit. It's a grind. But he was excellent; a lot more calm than I thought he'd be for a 19-year-old kid. Any kind of system we talked about, he picked it up right away."
Kulda helped out with a goal and five assists and a plus-8 through 20 playoff games, but Atlanta saw all that it needed even before the Wolves reached the Calder Cup Final. Kulda initially came to the team on a tryout contract. On May 22, the Thrashers locked him up with a regular deal.
"The first game (he played) was kind of an adjustment. But the second game, I got used to it," Kulda said. "I wanted to be signed by Atlanta. It was my chance. I knew I needed to show my best right from the first game."
Kulda's progress also gives Anderson something of a soapbox from which to preach his point. The Thrashers have taken a bit of a hit lately for their player development, and veteran-laden Chicago is viewed as Exhibit A.
Hogwash, Anderson said. He doesn't care if a player is young or old. He just wants them to be good. In some slots, that means established stars like Kwiatkowski, Jason Krog and Darren Haydar.
Elsewhere on that ice that could point to rookie goalie Ondrej Pavelec, rookie forward Bryan Little or out-of-the-blue Kulda.
"I'm trying to learn every time. I'm watching things he can do, trying to do them too." -- Arturs Kulda on teammate Joel Kwiatkowski"He came out of left field for us. Arturs has been a great surprise," Anderson said. "We like all good, young players. If players can't play, they don't play here. We're happy that a good young player got a chance. You have to look past the three or four veterans that we have."
All that is beyond the tunnel vision of Kulda, who simply wants to join the likes of countrymen Arturs Irbe and Sandis Ozolinsh -- players who attained icon status in their homeland by reaching the NHL.
"People in Latvia love hockey. It was always my dream, first to get drafted, then to make the NHL," Kulda said. "Lots of people (in Latvia) are pulling for me in the Calder Cup. I feel good to know people are watching my game."
And whatever they miss, yarn-spinner Kulda can tell them all about. When asked what sort of tales he'll tell the folks back home – and with Kwiatkowski listening in – Kulda showed just how quick a learner he is.
"I could tell stories (about) I was roommates with one of the best defensemen in the AHL," Kulda said.
"Maybe in my first interview," responded Kwiatkowski, "I'll say I played with the best rookie in the AHL."