Tomas Kundratek thought his career was going nowhere in the New York Rangers' organization. Not only was he in the American Hockey League with the Connecticut Whale, but he wasn't playing a whole lot, either.
"I was waiting, waiting until probably it was the seventh game I was a healthy scratch there," Kundratek said Wednesday. "I was like, 'That's enough, I'm a young player, I need to play.' "
So Kundratek's agent, Allan Walsh, worked out a deal to bring the 22-year-old defenseman to the Washington Capitals. He played with the Hershey Bears until this week.
"Since then, I was really excited and start enjoying hockey again," Kundratek said.
He got the call-up to the Caps to make his NHL debut Wednesday night against the Pittsburgh Penguins, making a big step in an impressive journey. Kundratek got into the lineup over John Erskine and Jeff Schultz at the highest level after being unable to pass veterans in the AHL for playing time.
"It was a really tough position there because they had a lot of really good players. There's Wade Redden, Brendan Bell and a lot of old guys," Kundratek said. "The coaches had a really hard [time]. I was talking to them and they didn't know even what to do."
It's a tough position now for Erskine and Schultz, who are both healthy and were not playing — even with defenseman Mike Green aggravating a groin injury.
"They're professionals," coach Dale Hunter said. "I'd imagine they worked out hard after just to be ready to play when we need them."
Scratches' views from an arena box were what Kundratek was used to in Connecticut. He only appeared in seven games for the Whale and had two assists.
Since the Nov. 8 trade for Francois Bouchard, Kundratek has looked like a capable AHL player with flashes that he can play in the NHL. He recorded six goals and two assists in 21 games.
"He's a good skater and moves the puck," Hunter said. "We like his mobility and that he can skate. When you're playing well down there, you get to come up here and play."
Kundratek made his NHL debut alongside Czech compatriot Roman Hamrlik, which was something of a dream for a player who grew up watching the former No. 1 overall pick.
Hamrlik recalled his debut playing alongside veteran Rob Ramage and the nerves he dealt with back in 1992. The 37-year-old has taken the same lesson Ramage offered him about keeping the game simple and imparted it on Kundratek.
"We have to start to playing simple ... and I'll try to help him out as much as I can," Hamrlik said. "The more practice and the more games he plays, the more comfortable he'll be with our system and with the plays we have."
There's already a built-in comfort level for Kundratek with two Czech goalies in Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth. Kundratek and Neuvirth played together at the world junior championships and know each other well, and the goaltender picked his friend up from the hotel Wednesday morning.
Having a heavy Czech influence around should only help Kundratek adapt quicker to a new team and city.
"Since I start playing in the AHL, I didn't have Czech players in the team," he said. "It's awesome. I really like it."
NOTE: Center Nicklas Backstrom (head injury) did not skate again Wednesday, and Hunter said there was no timetable for his return to skating or game action.
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