By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
After just 19 NHL games, Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy is buying in on Karson Kuhlman.
“He’s got a good release, we saw that in the playoffs,” Cassidy said of the 23-year-old Kuhlman. “One [goal] he had in St. Louis, earlier on against Toronto he had a couple of good looks and forced [Frederik] Andersen to make good saves. So you started thinking, ‘Well, he’s got a better shot than maybe we had seen his first time through in training camp.’”
That better-than-anticipated shot has fast-tracked the 5-foot-11 wing to a potential top-six role with the B’s, too, as Kuhlman appears to be the current favorite to skate to the right of Jake DeBrusk and David Krejci when the puck drops on 2019-20.
Kuhlman may not seem like the obvious candidate in addressing what has been the Black and Gold’s biggest need for half a decade now — and he’s almost certainly not the top-six forward Bruins president Cam Neely hoped to acquire when speaking with reporters following Boston’s Stanley Cup Final loss to the Blues — but it’s Kuhlman’s work ethic that’s slowly turning them into believers that he may just be their best bet out of the gate.
“I don’t think he’s gonna drop off, he could flat-line, but I don’t believe he’s going to get worse,” Cassidy said about Kuhlman being the No. 1 internal option the Bruins have for Krejci’s right wing. “To me, he’s too good of a person. His short career — from college to here, from Providence to here — dictates that he’ll keep working on his craft and get comfortable.”
There’s also the fact that Kuhlman didn’t look too, too out of place when skating with DeBrusk and Krejci last year.
“There was definitely a game in Columbus where [Kuhlman], Krejci, and DeBrusk made some plays,” Cassidy recalled. “I thought Columbus was playing well at the time, so it wasn’t one of those games where they caught a team at the wrong time. Then we started keeping an eye on him a little bit more. When he did come up, we thought he’d be more of bottom-of-the-lineup, responsible, checking type of guy. Maybe chip in some offense, but [he] probably has a little more than we thought.”
It was in that Apr. 2 game against Columbus that Kuhlman shined in the elevated role, with a goal and an assist in 14:10 of action. The DeBrusk-Krejci-Kuhlman line was an obvious plus for the Bruins that night, too, as the trio skated in 11:36 of five-on-five ice-time together that night, with the Bruins controlling attempts at 74 percent, outshooting Columbus 9-4, and outscoring 3-0 with the 74-46-83 combination on the ice.
The playoffs came with similarly positive results for the trio, as the Bruins outshot opponents 38-27 and outscored them 3-1 in 58:25 of five-on-five time with DeBrusk-Krejci-Kuhlman on the ice. Kuhlman ultimately replaced David Backes in the final two games of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final, and scored a goal in Boston’s do-or-die Game 6 victory.
It was enough for Krejci to give Kuhlman a vote of confidence in a conversation with Cassidy, with the veteran Boston pivot telling Cassidy that Kuhlman ‘gets to the right spots’ and is looking to make plays at the right time.
In other words, the gig is Kuhlman’s to lose. Which could absolutely still happen given the number of internal options that remain at Cassidy’s disposal should Kuhlman’s game dip out of the second line projections.
“We had David [Backes] up [last year]. We know that’s not a full-time solution,” offered Cassidy. “[Brett] Ritchie’s a wild card. We don’t know if he can play up there. He got some reps today in practice, [we’ll] probably look at that for a game or two.”
(Ritchie may be the first one to get a look up there if Kuhlman dips, especially with Cassidy noting that the Bruins don’t have any “big, big men” in their top six. Ritchie, for the record, is listed at 6-foot-4 and most definitely looks the part in uniform.)
“It can go to [Danton] Heinen, he goes to his off-side. They played together last year,” Cassidy continued. “[Anders] Bjork’s a wild card. He’s played there. But we have him on the left now and we’re trying him on that side.”
But right now, they’re all taking a back seat given Cassidy considers an important mix when building a line.
“Some of it’s your own eyes, some of it’s trusting guys that are on the ice playing,” said Cassidy.
Kuhlman will skate on the right side of a line with DeBrusk and Jack Studnicka in Thursday night’s road game against Philly.