There are more skillful players than Arturs Kulda on the IceCaps’ blueline (Paul Postma and Derek Meech), bigger defenceman (Travis Ramsey) and defenceman with greater NHL potential (Zach Redmond), but a case can be made the 23-year-old Latvian has been the most consistent St. John’s rearguard this season.
Sixteen other current and former (Shawn Weller) IceCaps have more points than Kulda’s 20 (six goals, 14 assists) so far this year, but no St. John’s player tops the fourth year pro’s plus-16, among the best plus-minus ratings for American Hockey League rearguards.
While Postma, voted the team’s best defenceman and MVP, and Meech, an NHL-calibre defenceman playing in the American Hockey League, get the glory for the rink-length dashes (might as well throw Jason DeSantis into that mix, and young Redmond), Kulda does the little things that might not always be noticed by fans.
Things like dropping down and blocking shots, playing tough in the corners and in front of his goaltender.
“He’s really solid on his skates so, when he goes into the corner, he’s hard to knock off his feet,” said St. John’s coach Keith McCambridge, who played a similar game during his 11 years as a pro.
“When he’s playing with an edge, he’s hard to play against.
“The biggest things with Kuls is when he’s involved and into the game, he’s one of the better defencemen at the AHL level. He’s proven himself this year. I saw him play in Chicago (of the American league) for a couple of years, and knew a little about him, but he really stepped up and showed this season that he’s a bubble guy between the NHL and the AHL.”
Kulda, who enjoyed a nine-game call-up to the Winnipeg Jets in November and early December, was a consistent minute-muncher for the IceCaps this season.
A regular on the team’s penalty killing unit, Kulda even saw some power play time when St. John’s ran into its recent spate of injuries.
Kulda wasn’t always a defence-first kind of player. During his first year of major junior hockey as an 18-year-old, following a pair of seasons in the CSKA Moscow system, Kulda was taken aside by his Peterborough Petes coach, Vince Malette.
“He kind of told me the defensive part of the game looks better for me,” Kulda recalls. “You know, be hard to play against in the corners, block shots, all that sort of stuff.”
So much for becoming the Latvian Bobby Orr, huh? Or Sandis Ozolinsh.
“Still, you know,” he says with a grin, “you can always dream about it. Sometimes you make some plays on the ice and it makes you feel good.”
The IceCaps close out their regular season tonight, Saturday and Sunday with games in Worcester, Mass., Springfield, Mass. and Manchester, N.H.
St. John’s opens its Calder Cup playoff season Wednesday against an opponent still to be determined.
With Postma and Meech back from injured reserve, the IceCaps are seven deep on defence amongst regulars with the playoffs looming — veteran Brett Festerling joining Postma, Meech, DeSantis, Kulda, Redmond and Ramsey.
Despite the crowd, expect Kulda to log his share of icetime.
“Look at Kuls and compare him to other defencemen,” suggests McCambridge. “He’s playing against the other teams’ top lines all the time. To be a plus player against those guys is very impressive.
“Your solid stay-at-home defencemen are usually on the plus side. I’ve never been a huge believer in that statistic, but I do take notice whenever there’s a wide discrepancy, whenever a guy is plus-seven, eight, or 10-plus above everyone else. He has to be doing something that stands out.
“Remember, Kuls doesn’t play against fourth liners all night.”
Drafted in the seventh round by the Atlanta Thrashers while he was still in Russia, Kulda got a taste of the NHL during his fourth winter in North America, appearing in four NHL games with the Thrashers. Last year, he was recalled to Atlanta from the Chicago Wolves for a pair of NHL games.
Latvia — Kulda is from the capital, Riga, “there are two million in the country, and 700,000 live in Riga” — has not developed an overabundance of NHLers — Ozolinsh is probably the best — but that’s not to say Latvians don’t enjoy their hockey.
The country’s hockey fans are known for their loud, passionate display at world championships, and it was in nearby Finland that Kulda’s father watched the 1997 worlds.
“We made it to the A pool, and I was only nine. My dad went to watch and when he came back home, he asked me if I wanted to try hockey.
“The Latvian fans, they’re really supportive. I played in the last two world championships, and it’s awesome.”
Kulda is a restricted free agent the end of this season, and barring any major surprises, will re-sign with Winnipeg. The Jets, according to McCambridge, like what they see in Kulda.
“He put himself on the radar,” McCambridge said. “They were really happy with the way he played up there. He came in there and showed he can log quality minutes at the NHL level.”