Anderson: Third-line center job still seems wide open for Bruins
By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
With just one preseason game left at their disposal, the Boston Bruins are still in search of a center for their third line.
Now, the Bruins have no shortage of candidates; Jack Studnicka was returned to juniors on Wednesday and Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson was assigned to the P-Bruins on Friday, which means that if the job is to be won by a prospect, it will be first-year pro Trent Frederic. Sean Kuraly, though injured, has been subtly mentioned as a possible candidate.
Even David Backes played center on Wednesday night as a stand-in on the Patrice Bergeron line in a 3-2 loss to the Detroit Red Wings, though the odds of Backes skating as a full-time center in 2018-19 are somewhere between slim and none.
The only problem for Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy, again though, is that there’s no clear favorite that’s emerged.
Reading into the respective usage of Forsbacka Karlsson and Frederic in Wednesday’s overtime loss to the Red Wings was borderline useless. The more experienced Forsbacka Karlsson finished his night with one blocked shot, one takeaway, and a plus-1 rating in 13:03 of time on ice (2:53 of it came with the Bruins on the penalty kill), while Frederic had a more ‘complete’ night that featured one shot on goal, and wins on six of his 15 faceoffs in a 17:11 night (with over four minutes spent on the B’s No. 1 power-play unit). Reading into the tangible impact each made on the scoreboard was equally fruitless, too, as neither necessarily did something to put themselves head and shoulders above the rest of the competition.
But let’s bring this whole debate back to one question: Which player can make the impact that most closely resembles what Boston had with Riley Nash between Danton Heinen and Backes for what was a highly underrated third line last year?
If we’re going on eye-test alone, I think Frederic had Forsbacka Karlsson beat here.
The 6-foot-3 Frederic is more of an in-your-face on-ice presence, and has done his part to be more involved in the offense with each showing, especially when the preseason shifted back to the U.S., and with the on-ice chances dwindling.
Forsbacka Karlsson’s game, meanwhile, seemed to be focused on the finer, subtle things that may go unnoticed on a line with somebody like Backes. (I’ll even say that Forsbacka Karlsson did almost nothing to separate himself from the pack, at least when it came to planting his flag in that pivot spot and saying that the spot was his to lose.)
Now, it’s worth noting that Forsbacka Karlsson had been handed a considerably large role in the defensive zone this preseason, too, which certainly diminished his offensive-zone impact. You could have read into that usage as a sign that the Bruins would have liked to give him that job, as Riley Nash was the Bruins’ second-most common defensive-zone centerman a year ago (his 355 d-zone draws sat just 72 behind Patrice Bergeron’s team-leading 427).
But in JFK’s last two games prior to his move back down to the AHL, he had taken 10 defensive-zone faceoffs and won six of them (60 percent success rate). Over that same sample, though, Frederic won five of 12 faceoffs in the defensive zone (41.6 percent success rate). This, on top of the smaller sample size, meant that the difference was marginal at best.
Friday’s practice, meanwhile, saw Frederic bumped down to a de facto fifth line with Peter Cehlarik and Anders Bjork, and with Kuraly in Frederic’s would-be spot with Ryan Donato on the left and Backes to the right.
Now, when you gave the edge to Frederic over Forsbacka Karlsson due to the ‘in your face’ factor, it’s worth mentioning that I certainly think Kuraly plays this way and could continue to do so. But it would undoubtedly require a significant uptick in Kuraly’s on-ice conditioning, as he played 15 minutes or more just eight times last year while Riley Nash accomplished such a feat 44 times. But truth be told, it’s hard not to feel that Kuraly’s wildly-reckless speed is something that the Bruins have to believe is best utilized on the energetic, momentum-shifting fourth line.
And while Kuraly does have familiarity when it comes to playing on a line with No. 42, there’s something that seems enticing about plugging Frederic (a St. Louis native) next to his favorite player as a kid.
“He was my favorite player growing up and he’s a leader and he’s everything I thought he would be,” Frederic said of Backes earlier this week. “He’s been awesome to me, a pretty good mentor, and I always go to him for questions, so he’s great about it and he’s a great hockey mind and a great hockey player, so it’s been pretty good.”
There’s also the fact that Frederic himself feels ready to take that next step in his career.
“I think so,” the 20-year-old Frederic, a first-round pick in 2016, said Wednesday night when asked if he believes he’s ready to jump to the NHL. “I mean, I know this is preseason so the real season is probably a different beast, but yeah I think I’m ready and hopefully I get the chance, but we’ll just have to see.”
As will Cassidy.
Ty Anderson is a writer and columnist for 985TheSportsHub.com. He has also been a voting member of the Boston Chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association since 2013. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Ty? Follow him on Twitter@_TyAnderson.