During Adam Oates’s stint as co-coach of the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears this fall, Tomas Kundratek stood out. His strong skating ability made him noticeable and his ability to contribute consistently on the scoresheet resulted in more opportunity.
When Jack Hillen suffered an upper body injury in the Capitals season opener on Jan. 19, Oates wanted to bring in a right-handed defenseman and Kundratek fit the bill. He already knew the systems, thanks to the time with Oates and assistant coach Calle Johansson in Hershey, and displayed plenty of confidence offensively.
As defensive pairings shuffled and other players came in, Kundratek remained in the lineup, playing 13 consecutive games and on the 14th he got a promotion. With Mike Green out of the lineup with a lower-body injury against the New York Rangers, Kundratek was paired with Karl Alzner and skated a career-high 23 minutes 25 seconds.
“He made a couple mistakes, but I thought all-in-all, he played great,” Oates said. “He’s played good hockey. Real tough environment the other night. New York’s a tough building. When it gets rocking it’s tough, it’s overwhelming. That’s a valuable opportunity for him.”
After his first game paired with Kundratek, Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner had nothing but high praise for his young teammate.
“Just from watching him so far this season, the plays he makes, I ask myself, ‘Why can’t I make those plays?’ sometimes. He’s really calm with the puck. He makes the nice, skilled plays when he has to, the passes and plays to the middle, which I always thought only came with time and experience but obviously it just comes if you’re skilled like he is.”
Through 14 games Kundratek has four assists and is averaging 13:51 of ice time. He’s tied with a team-worst minus-7 rating, though, and at times has been overexposed in his own end.
Kundratek speaks regularly about the need to improve his defensive game. After most practices he can be seen staying out on the ice late, working one-on-one with Johansson on various techniques.
“I think I’m working hard on my D zone and trying to do what the coaches tell me, and I think I’m proving I can play defense, too,” Kundratek said last week. “The guys are really smart here [in the NHL]. I had to be patient a little bit more….That’s what I still have to work on, be patient more in 2-on-1 and get better on that because guys are making great plays. They’re smart, really skilled players.”