By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
Did the Bruins get a little too comfortable for their own liking?
I mean, it seems pretty hard to say no. Just consider the fact that they returned for a new season with almost the same exact roster that brought them to the 2019 Stanley Cup Final, as well as the massive lead they built in the Atlantic Division to begin the year, and it’s easy to see why that happened. Now, some of their recent struggles come as a result of the nature of the flow of an 82-game season (a 2018-19 Lightning-esque run is just so rare), but there were issues.
And after some noteworthy boosts from some Providence recalls in the last week alone, Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy’s revitalization of ‘internal competition’ is certainly looking like the tonic the B’s needed.
“What we’re trying to do – again, I’ll be very open, is we decided a couple of weeks ago or whatever it was that we needed a little more internal competition,” Cassidy admitted. “Usually, that starts from the bottom up.”
Brought back to Boston after a four-game stint with the P-Bruins, 5-foot-11 winger Karson Kuhlman has now recorded three assists in three games. In just 32:06 of total time on ice, too. His three points in three games are second among all Boston forwards (only David Pastrnak has been more productive, with four points).
Kuhlman appeared to be a fit with David Krejci (the most important name to note when it comes to projecting Kuhlman’s role with the 2020 Bruins), too, and with Danton Heinen skated in his natural left-wing spot. This may not be what Krejci envisioned as his long-term fit for the Black and Gold this season, and it might not be. (The only reason it was together was because of Krejci’s uncertainty entering Tuesday, really, as the Bruins didn’t want to potentially mess with multiple lines in the event that Krejci missed the game. Especially after the Coyle Line’s performance on Sunday.)
But the trio certainly worked on Tuesday, as the Heinen-Krejci-Kuhlman line outshot the opposition 10-3 in 8:45 of five-on-five play and were on the ice for two of their three strikes, including the Krejci game-winner in the third period.
“I thought, overall, it was a good game [for our line],” Krejci said. “I feel like all three of us are pretty smart, and we’ve played together before, so we know what to expect from each other. It worked when it mattered.”
What you like about Kuhlman really comes down to speed and smarts, too. There are times where Kuhlman’s pursuit of pucks and forechecking style looks a bit like Brad Marchand — and though my eyesight is growing worse by the day, I don’t think that has to do with the fact that they’re both smaller forwards and that 63 can look like 83 — and his willingness to drive towards the grimier areas of the rink are welcomed. Hell, it’s led to goals on multiple occasions. You rarely said about this 2019 David Backes and Brett Ritchie, two (now waived) players given chances ahead of Kuhlman.
Kuhlman’s advantages are not new developments, but the results for such efforts are, as points consistently eluded Kuhlman during his first 2019-20 run with the B’s before a fractured tibia landed him on the shelf for over two months.
Now, for Kuhlman (and all of these players gunning for jobs), it’s about the consistency.
He (and everybody else for that matter) knows Anders Bjork is still hungry to prove himself in a top-six role, that Heinen has been the Bruins’ utility player when necessary, that Zach Senyshyn looked rather promising in his NHL cameo earlier this season, and that the Bruins remain on the hunt for a right wing in the trade market.
“I think competition is a good thing,” Kuhlman, who is no stranger to providing the B’s with some lifts (see last year’s Stanley Cup), offered. “I think it pushes everybody to play their best, practice their best, and it makes everybody better. But at the same time, we have a great group in here. So close, so tight, and I think it shows when we’re on the ice.”
Down on the fourth line, Anton Blidh made his season debut, and finished with a forward-high 1:21 of shorthanded time on ice on Tuesday. Blidh is clearly a player that Cassidy and the Bruins wanted to get a look at, too, as his name has come up a ton in recent weeks. There’s a different kind of bite with Blidh over Joakim Nordstrom (it’s really more about agitating than the fearless shot-blocking of Nordstrom), though both seem like real fits with Boston’s fourth line.
“He was one of that was hurt at the start of the year that we were going to look at in training camp,” Cassidy said of Blidh. “I think we discussed that; we thought [Blidh] was a lot closer than he was maybe a couple of years ago, so that was something that was going to be in the works when he was ready.”
He’ll have to jostle with Nordstrom and Par Lindholm for further looks with the Big B’s, and Blidh understands the value of all three skaters, saying that playing strong defensive hockey might be in every Swedish player’s blood.
But the most interesting development could come from the backend and off the stick of Jeremy Lauzon.
Skating in his second NHL game of the year on Tuesday, Lauzon’s comfort was there. He’ll take chances to make plays, but follow through with some capable play in the defensive end. His stat line confirmed as much; Lauzon finished with four hits, had a big blocked shot on a Ryan Reaves attempt in the third period, and got his shot through traffic to beat Marc-Andre Fleury for Boston’s first goal of the evening.
“All-in-all [Lauzon] had good composure, didn’t seem fazed by anything,” said Cassidy. “We’ll always go back and look at it, there will be some details that we’ll talk about, but I liked his game. I thought he brought what we needed.”
This could be huge. Boston’s top four defense group is pretty much set in stone. You’ll see Zdeno Chara paired with Charlie McAvoy, and Torey Krug will skate to the left of Brandon Carlo. But that third pairing has been a complete question mark, with John Moore and Connor Clifton battling for minutes next to Matt Grzelcyk. But Clifton is on the shelf, and Moore really hasn’t looked anything even close to comfortable this year. Kevan Miller, of course, has missed the entire season to date, and while he’s started skating again, he seems like a ‘bonus’ more than anything else.
In other words, the Bruins are another injury scare away from entering potentially dangerous territory, and maybe having to spend their (limited) trade capital on an extra defenseman. Lauzon, if steady, could change those plans.
That could really be said for any of this new bloods who have reenergized the B’s lineup in their early showings. Meaning that while Cassidy expected a “little push” from this group, this might be the start of something more.
“We’ll see where it leads us,” said Cassidy.