"If you do not expect the unexpected you will not find it, for it is not to be reached by search or trail."
Raise your hand if you knew in January that Washington Capitals defenseman Tomas Kundratek would record points at an 82-game pace that would be among his best seasons at any level of hockey. Here was a fellow who was the return package in a trade of “prospects” back in 2011. We use the quotation marks for “prospects” advisedly, considering that a trade of a disappointing youngster (Francois Bouchard) for what Caps fans might have been forgiven for thinking was little more than a warm body was not among the most newsworthy deals on the NHL ticker in November of 2011.
But here was a player who methodically rose through the tiers of Czech hockey, was drafted by the New York Rangers in the third round of the 2008 entry draft, then came to North America in 2008 to skate for the Medicine Hat Tigers in Canadian juniors. Kundratek dutifully spent two years in Medicine Hat, then joined the Connecticut Whale in the American Hockey League. It was in his second year in Connecticut that he got the call – the trade to the Capitals’ organization – upon which he reported to Hershey to skate with the Bears for the remainder of the 2011-2012 season. During that season he was brought up for a cup o’ coffee – five games – with the Caps.
Fans might not have seen the trail, but Kundratek was following it with diligence.
The diligence was rewarded, even if it was the product of misfortune. When Jack Hillen was injured in the Caps’ season opener, Kundratek was recalled from Hershey to replace him. At the time of his recall Kundratek had already played in 41 games for the Bears, the product of the NHL’s late start to the 2013 season. And those 41 games presented a mixed case for his promotion. On the one hand he was 13-13-26 in those games. On the other hand, he was a minus-13, including a minus-15 during a November in which the Bears went 6-7-0.
His elevation did not do much for his game. In his first eight games as Hillen’s replacement he was 0-0-0, minus-5. Then, against Toronto on February 5th, he recorded an assist – his first NHL point. He recorded another assist in his next game against Pittsburgh. It was the start of a stretch in which he would record four points (all assists) over five games. He would go on to go 1-6-7, plus-3 over a 12-game stretch after his eight-game streak without a point to start his season.
At that point, Kundratek went dormant, failing to record a point in any of his next four games. The last of those, however, showed a spark that perhaps he was coming out of the slump. Although he did not record a point in a 4-0 loss to Carolina on March 12th, he did post a team high in shot attempts (eight) and shots on goal (five) in a career high 24:13 of ice time.
That might have been the high point. In his next game, also against the Hurricanes, Kundratek got tangled up with Jeff Skinner on his fourth shift of the first period. He left the contest with a leg injury, his last appearance with the Caps for the 2013 season.
It is hard to remember that Kundratek played in 25 games. Part of that is the fact that he spent more 5-on-5 ice time with Jeff Schultz – another of the lost brigade of defensemen – than he did with any Caps defenseman except Karl Alzner. And what a difference a partner makes. Consider the goals against at 5-on-5. With Alzner, the GA20 (from stats.hockeyanalysis.com) was 0.564. When apart from Alzner, it jumped to 1.093. A good part of that, no doubt, was his pairing with Schultz for large chunks of ice time. Kundratek’s GA20 with Schultz was 1.715, while it was only 0.504 when not paired with Schultz. Those are the numbers of an in-season rookie call up.
Odd Kundratek Stat… In nine games against Southeast Division teams, Kundratek was 0-2-2, minus-1, but the Caps went 7-2-0. In 16 games against other Eastern Conference teams Kundratek was 1-4-5, minus-4, but the Caps were 4-11-1.
Game to Remember… March 5th vs. Boston. Eric Fehr got the goal – a “play of the year” candidate, in fact. But Kundratek got things started on that play, feeding Fehr skating out of the Caps’ zone, who then worked a give-and-go with Nicklas Backstrom before roofing the puck while falling to the ice for the game-winner. Kundratek got a goal of his own in that game, one that got the Caps to within 3-2 heading into the second intermission. He had six shot attempts (one on goal for a score), a hit, a takeaway, and a blocked shot to go with his plus-2 in 23 minutes of ice time. It was his first and, to date, only two-point game in his brief career.
Game to Forget… March 14th vs. Carolina. Live by the sword, die by it. He came to the Caps as a result of an injury, and his season ended for the Caps to an injury he sustained just 7:49 into this game.
Post Season… Kundratek was 0-1-1, minus-1 in five games with Hershey. He did not participate in Washington’s first round loss to the New York Rangers.
In the end… Tomas Kundratek had one of those seasons that fans will think of as being a stepping stone to bigger things, and it might be that. But on the other hand, he benefited mightily from his pairing with Karl Alzner and had less success with other defensive partners. There is also the fact that 30 games of NHL experience (25 of them this year) is not a lot to go on when making judgments about his potential for future production.
Kundratek is a restricted free agent with the end of the 2013 season, and the Caps have a fair number of guys under contract for the next season or two who might be third-pair types at the moment – John Erskine, Jack Hillen, Steve Oleksy, Cameron Schilling, Nate Schmidt, and Dmitry Orlov among them. Is is hard to know where Kundratek falls out in this situation, but one thing he has done is followed a straight and true path to his opportunity in the NHL. One might not expect him to break through, but then again…
Photo: Rob Carr/Getty Images North America