Latvia is hardly a hockey factory. In fact, only eight players from Latvia have ever suited up for more than 50 NHL games and only Sandis Ozolinsh and Arturs Irbe come anywhere near the realm of household name.
But the Atlanta Thrashers are hoping that number grows to three when 21-year-old defenseman Arturs Kulda makes the NHL squad in the next year or two.
When the Thrashers drafted Kulda with their seventh round pick (200th overall) in the 2006 draft, they figured they could groom him into an NHL regular.
But just what did the Thrashers management see in Kulda?
“A big, strong kid that needed to improve in a number of areas,” said GM Rick Dudley.
Despite not being part of the management team that drafted him, Dudley is well versed on Kulda after being with the team since June of 2009.
“He needed to improve his skating…he needed to improve his puckhandling,” Dudley said.
Kulda made the move to Canada after the draft, playing for the Peterborough Petes of the Ontario League. After two years of development and assimilating to the North American game, Kulda made the jump to the American League and his first taste of pro hockey.
“It was a great experience for me because I played in Europe,” said Kulda, “And they play different hockey there. Playing in the OHL helped me get bigger and stronger and helped me play better defense.”
The 6-foot-2, 200-pounder has been compared to Vancouver’s Willie Mitchell. Dudley believes this is indeed a compliment, seeing that Mitchell, when healthy, is a 20-minute per night defenseman who can shut down opposing players. Kulda, however, can bring his own style into the game.
“He is very strong,” Dudley said. “When he hits, (opposing players) stay down. His processing ability is above average and that’s very important, because he usually makes the right selection depending on what play is available. He’s gotten to the point now where he can get the puck out of the zone. He can hit the open man. He processes the game much better.”
Kulda amassed 45 points in 113 career OHL games and has 41 points in 128 AHL games with the Chicago Wolves. What impresses Dudley, though, is Kulda’s defensive play. Kulda was a plus-7 in his first full AHL season, but improved to an impressive plus-47 this year, showing just how far his game has come.
“I think he’s ready,” Dudley said of Kulda’s NHL chances. “What he’ll have to do is come in and show that he can be consistently safe and continue to process the play quickly. With many young players, they think they have to make an impact immediately. But what they have to do is show that they can be on the ice and not hurt the team. If he can do that, he can probably play.”
For his part, Kulda knows what he needs to do to make the jump.
“I just think you have to have a really good summer, work hard, keep in good shape, play well,” he said. “Hopefully you’ll impress the coaches and the managers. Then I’ll get my chance. I just have to work hard and good things will happen.”
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