By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Bruins could not afford a discounted Marcus Johansson.
They didn’t even make him a July 1 offer, actually.
Make of that what you will, of course, but it officially opens the door to a potentially sneaky-big question facing the 2019-20 Bruins and their ability to return to the Stanley Cup Final next spring: who replaces Johansson?
Acquired from the Devils in exchange for two draft picks (a 2019 second-round selection and 2020 fourth-round pick), Johansson was everything the Bruins needed. A strong puck-possession forward, and with an ability to transport the puck through the neutral zone and through traffic, Johansson proved to be a difference maker for Boston’s middle-six. In fact, you could make the case that Johansson was the B’s best, most consistent forward in their seven-game series loss to the Blues.
It’s a big loss.
And with the Bruins short on cap space to add, the replacement is likely going to have to come internally. And that’s something that B’s general manager Don Sweeney seemed more than comfortable acknowledging when talking with the media on July 1.
Here’s a look at who the Bruins could slide into Johansson’s place in 2019-20…
There’s tremendous irony here, really, as Johansson would have been re-signed had the Bruins been able to successfully shed David Backes and his $6 million cap hit. But that did not happen, and it’s hard to imagine the Bruins finding a suitor for the 35-year-old forward between now and the start of the season. It could still happen, of course, but the number of teams needing to reach the cap floor has dropped drastically (just three teams sit below the floor), and it’s hard to imagine the Bruins wanting to throw in the sweeteners moving Backes would require considering the fact that they haven’t done it by now.
So let’s say Backes remains with the Bruins. Is it possible to imagine him skating with Charlie Coyle on line three? Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy clearly views Backes as a fourth-line talent, which makes this seem like a long shot right off the bat. But the B’s bench boss gave the Backes-Coyle combination a solid 78 minutes together in 2019, and the results… weren’t horrible, as the Bruins outshot the opposition 66-34, and controlled possession at 62.9 percent with Backes and Coyle on the ice together.
Those numbers are seemingly worth further exploration on the part of the B’s, even with what you’d have to say were pretty favorable matchups and offensive-zone starts, but it is worth mentioning that this line scored just one goal and generated just 14 high-danger chances over that span. But Backes has been at his best as a Bruin when skating opposite Heinen, and Coyle is better than Riley Nash, too, making this a potentially interesting option for the Bruins should No. 42 remain on their roster.
Let’s be real: Anders Bjork is starting from scratch here. After back-to-back season-ending shoulder surgeries, and with an extremely limited exposure to meaningful NHL minutes, banking on Bjork to move into David Pastrnak’s spot on line one and give the Bruins that perfect forward balance they seek seems like pie-in-the-sky hopes as of right now.
But, the 22-year-old could find a good starting point for his NHL career relaunch in a protected spot with Coyle and Heinen on Boston’s third line. Think about it: When the Bruins have taken ice-time away from Bjork, it’s because they haven’t been in love with his defensive play or commitment to battle for pucks, in the corners, etc. “Hiding” him against weaker defensive pairings and with stronger, puck-possession players like Coyle and Heinen could be the jumpstart Bjork needs for NHL production.
Bjork is similar to Johansson in the sense that’s he a left-shot that plays both the left and right side without a noticeable dip in his play, too, adding to his value as a direct replacement for Johansson.
Not exactly a player I’d think of as a possible replacement for Johansson, Sweeney mentioned the Boston, Mass. native Paul Carey by name when discussing who could potentially slide into Johansson’s spot on the Boston roster. The 30-year-old totaled three shots on goal in two appearances with the Big B’s last season, and has eight goals and 16 points in 99 career games.
It’s now or never for Peter Cehlarik.
Re-signed to a one-year, $700,000 contract at the NHL level, Cehlarik’s training camp may be one of the more interesting ones to watch, as he’ll hit the waiver wire if he fails to make the team from the jump. Cehlarik tallied four goals and two assists in 20 NHL games last year, and has five goals and 10 points in 37 NHL games to date, but has failed to stick with the Bruins on anything even close to a full-time basis. Cehlarik played with Coyle for a hot minute in 2019, which seemingly helps his case.
It feels weird to talk about a player already on a line with Johansson as a replacement for Johansson, but that’s exactly what Sweeney did on July 1, suggesting that Heinen could move back to his natural left side and skate in Johansson’s spot next year.
“Marcus wasn’t a shoot-first guy, and Danton’s not,” Sweeney said. “We’d like him to shoot a little more volume, if he can.”
Heinen scored a career-high 16 goals, mostly skating on at left wing, in 2017-18.
The Bruins got a little taste of what Kuhlman can do at the NHL level during last year’s postseason cameos, with a goal and two assists along with 10 shots on goal in eight fill-in appearances during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Not exactly the biggest skater in the room (Kuhlman is listed at 5-foot-11), it’s Kuhlman’s ability to win pucks, use his speed to his advantage, and a quick release that could make him a viable candidate for Boston’s third line next year. He’s also a natural right wing.
The Bruins most likely signed free agent Brett Ritchie to help with the departure of fourth-line staple Noel Acciari.
But the truth is that the Bruins already have their share of fourth-line talents — Sean Kuraly, Joakim Nordstrom, Chris Wagner, and Par Lindholm are all signed to next year’s squad — meaning somebody’s going to need to get bumped up. Ritchie’s size (6-foot-4) and history as a player with some offensive success may make him the perfect candidate for such a bump up the roster.
“Size, right shot , physicality, scored 16 goals two years ago, so obviously he had a little higher shooting percentage that year than he did the next two years,” Sweeney said of Ritchie. “Do we expect him to reach that? We hope, we do.”
And while Ritchie has played for three different coaches over the last three years, and with his role varying with each coach, Ritchie’s sweet spot hasn’t changed, and could be what a Heinen-Coyle line needs to be a threat from all over the offensive zone.
Ritchie’s experience in the front of the net on the power play, where the Bruins had Johansson camped for a large stretch of their postseason run to the 2019 Stanley Cup Final, could also make him a Johansson replacement in the truest sense.
“I’d say most of them come from within 15-foot circle around the net,” Ritchie said when asked about his scoring game. “Obviously not every one. But a lot of them are rebounds around the net, driving the net getting a stick on it. Maybe a bang-bang play backdoor, a lot of stuff in tight like that seems to be where I have the most success.”
The Bruins are still waiting for positive returns on two of their three first-round picks from the 2015 NHL Draft. Zach Senyshyn, taken with the No. 15 overall pick, is one of those two. And if there’s been a better opportunity for the 22-year-old to finally grab hold of an NHL spot than the one presented to him with Johansson out of the picture, I’d love to find it. A 6-foot-1 wing with blazing speed, Senyshyn didn’t look complete out of place during his two-game cameo with the Bruins to close out the regular season. In fact, Senyshyn even got on the board with the first goal of his NHL career (an empty-net goal, but still).
“He had three or four good chances before [the empty-net goal],” Bruce Cassidy said after Senyshyn’s debut. “As your first, you’d always like to tell the whole world you went through the whole team and went bar down, but this still works for him.”
This is not your traditional replacement. The only way Jack Studnicka truly “replaces” Johansson on the Black and Gold’s roster (at least in my opinion), is if he wins the third-line center gig out of the camp, prompting the Bruins to utilize Coyle as a top-six wing. A 2017 second-round pick, Studnicka jumps to the pro ranks after totaling 80 goals and 233 points in 252 OHL games. He’s also tallied two goals and seven points in nine AHL games.