The Boston Bruins enjoyed one of the NHL's best 1-2 punches at center for more than a decade with Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci leading the top two lines.
But after 15 years in Boston, Krejci left the Bruins for his native Czech Republic, where he will continue his playing career. Replacing Krejci will not be easy. He was an excellent playmaker, a reliable two-way presence and tallied the fourth-most points in the Stanley Cup Playoffs over the last decade.
You don't need to have multiple top-tier centers to win games and be a real Cup contender. The Vegas Golden Knights are one such example. Still, the Bruins need to find a long-term replacement for Krejci. Given their limited salary cap space and lack of elite trade assets, filling Krejci's role from within the organization seems like the most likely outcome right now.
Here's a breakdown of the best internal candidates to replace Krejci.
When B's head coach Bruce Cassidy talked with reporters last week, he made it pretty clear that Coyle is going to get the first opportunity to replace Krejci.
"I think the obvious choice is Charlie Coyle," Cassidy said on a Zoom call. "He's the most familiar with our guys. I'm the most familiar with him -- allows the other guys to fall into place."
Coyle is the best option for the job given his experience, size (6-foot-3, 220 pounds) and two-way ability. He didn't have a great 2020-21 season (16 points in 51 games), but he was clearly hampered physically and underwent offseason knee surgery. Assuming he's ready to go by training camp, which reportedly should be the case, he should get the first crack in Krejci's spot.
Craig Smith became a fixture on the second line late last season, particularly after the Taylor Hall trade. Before that move, he did play a bit with Coyle on the third line. Coyle and Smith logged 223:39 of 5-on-5 ice time together and helped the B's drive puck possession above 50 percent and outscore opponents 7-6. So, there's already some chemistry between Coyle and Smith, which obviously helps.
"Charlie and Taylor Hall, and Smith were on that line last year," Cassidy said. "If Coyle can bring some of what Krejci did, it'll be a real good line. That's the way we're leaning, and we'll see how the other pieces shake out."
Coyle is ideally a very good third-line center. He's also one of the highest-paid third-line centers with a salary cap hit of $5.25 million. But after Krejci's departure, Coyle is the most reliable option Cassidy has for the second-line center role.
Studnicka is among the Bruins' top prospects and was expected to earn a regular NHL role last season -- or at least a larger one than he did. The 2017 second-round draft pick played in just 20 games for Boston and tallied one goal and two assists.
It was a tough year for Studnicka, but he's still very much an option in the short and long term to play center on the second or third line. He has an excellent shot, a high hockey IQ and has shown to be an effective playmaker.
"How does (Studnicka) fit in? Some of that will depend on his growth," Cassidy said last week. "He didn't get to play a lot of hockey last year, unfortunately. Like a lot of young players, missed some time with the COVID restrictions. He's also in the mix. He looks bigger, going to be really pushing for a spot. I have to include him in that mix as well."
A stronger Studnicka is an encouraging sign for the Bruins:
With the Bruins having so many players capable of playing center, Studnicka's best chance for ice time could come on the wing. Either way, the Bruins need to find him as many minutes as possible because playing against NHL competition will best help him realize his exciting potential.
Foligno has played plenty of center throughout his career, but the most likely spot for him to begin the season probably is third-line right wing. Versatility is one of his best traits, and he also should get quite a few penalty killing shifts.
Foligno is not an ideal top-six player at this stage of his career. He hasn't tallied more than 35 points in a season since 2016-17. That said, Foligno would not be a horrible option for Cassidy if injuries to other players become a factor. He has plenty of experience.
Haula is a hard-nosed, two-way player who could start the season as the third-line center. He doesn't have the offensive skill to be a legit top-six center. In his last six seasons, he's tallied more than 20 assists only once. He hasn't tallied more than 12 assists in each of the last three seasons. Haula, like Foligno, is better-suited for a bottom-six role. He'll play a strong 200-foot game and provide between 10-15 goals. Asking him to generate offense for himself, plus Hall and Smith, in a top-six role playing against the opponents' top two pairings would not be ideal for Boston.
Nosek is another offseason signing for the Bruins likely to start at center, probably on the fourth line. He's also a versatile player capable of being effective on the wing. The Bruins badly need more scoring from their fourth line. Nosek posted 18 points (eight goals, 10 assists) in just 38 games for the Golden Knights last season. From an offensive skill standpoint, he's an upgrade over Sean Kuraly and Curtis Lazar. Something has gone wrong for the Bruins if Nosek is playing on the second line. He should be a fixture (and a good one) in the bottom-six.