Bruins

Bruins still looking for answers at third-line center spot

Bruins still looking for answers at third-line center spot

BRIGHTON, Mass – Almost a week into the regular season, the Bruins are still scrambling to figure out what’s going to work for them in the middle of their third line.

Youngsters Jack Studnicka. Trent Frederic and Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson showed in training camp that they weren’t quite ready for prime time right now, but could very well be in the near future. Sean Kuraly won the third line center job of out of training camp seemingly by default after being injured for most of the preseason, and had just a single shot on goal in each of the first two games without much in the way of offense from the third line.

The Bruins freely admitted heading into the season that they weren’t quite sure what they’d get out of Kuraly offensively in a higher spot in the lineup, but the only way of knowing was to play it out during the regular season.

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“I don’t know,” said Cassidy. “That’s part of the experiment. He’ll give you effort and he’ll possess pucks. Being on the third line won’t affect his defensive game. [Riley Nash], we weren’t sure on either. There’s a little bit of growing pains there and we understand that. What we need to make sure is that our two two lines are up to speed and our power play is producing. Then the bottom two lines give us good puck possession and hard-to-play-against minutes and then let their offensive game grow.”

At the end of the day, it might just be that Kuraly is a solid fourth line center and that’s going to be his station in life at the NHL level. That’s certainly still a pretty good place to be if you’re Kuraly.

So now Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy is tinkering with 34-year-old David Backes in the middle between Danton Heinen and Anders Bjork on his wings. It could be an interesting mix with the big, strong and veteran Backes in the middle calling the shots and setting the tone for the line, and Heinen and Bjork freed to use their speed and skill while being protected a bit by their big center in the middle.

Backes, for one, was all for it when asked about it after Sunday’s practice, and has made no secret that he looks forward to the days when gets to play the center position he was at for so long during his tenure with the St. Louis Blues.

“Playing center, for me maybe there will be a little more in the legs with the crowd making a ruckus,” said Backes, referencing his anticipation for the TD Garden crowd in Monday’s home opener. “I’d say it was more of a one-way street with me communicating with them and letting them know how much it means to me when they’re talking to me as well. It’s maybe a little more imperative with a winger that’s facing the wall or getting rimmed puck, that he really can’t see anything behind him and really needs that communication rather than a guy in the middle of the ice.

“I think [my role is] exiting our D-zone as quickly as possible and being able to separate guys from pucks and get it into [the winger’s] hands, joining the rush and then being a responsible F3 so those guys can get creative down low. I don’t want to be just a passive third line checking line, I want to be an offensive threat. I think that’s a good way to play a third line role is to keep the other team on their heels. We need to get to that. I don’t if I have the Bergeron chemistry from the slot like he and Marchand do, but we can certainly get pucks to the net, find a few rebounds and get a few home. I want to celebrate a few goals with my linemates.”

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Cassidy said on Sunday that the Bruins are toggling through their options on the third line at this early point in the season, and clearly are still looking for the right combination to provide support behind the top two lines.

“We took a look at [Backes at center] today because it’s something we’ve discussed,” said Cassidy. “It’s a plan C type of thing. Going into the year we were going to look at the three younger guys and then take a look at Sean. I think the fact that Sean missed some time [in camp] means we may have to wait on that.

“We kind of toggle him and Backes back and forth. We talked to [Backes] about it and he’s got some speed and skill on the wing. That was part of the thinking. So we’ll probably look at it tomorrow [vs. Ottawa] and it’s an easy switch back if we have to do it and go back to the lines the other night.”

It doesn’t feel like Kuraly or Backes are going to be the final answer in the middle of the third line this season, however. This humble hockey writer’s hunch is that either Frederic or JFK will end up filling that spot a couple of months down the line after a little more seasoning at the AHL level. Frederic, in particular, had an impressive camp after only playing a handful of games for the P-Bruins last season, and could be the kind of player that would plug in nicely with the big-bodied Backes and a young skilled left winger.

But for now the Bruins are trying out different pieces and looking for a little stability while working toward a more permanent solution on a third line that’s very clearly still in flux after the free agency departure of Riley Nash. 

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Jack Studnicka the next great hope for the Bruins at center position

Jack Studnicka the next great hope for the Bruins at center position

Jack Studnicka didn’t participate in any of the on-ice activities during Bruins development camp a couple of weeks ago, but the 20-year-old clearly remains Boston’s best hope as a top-6 center of the future as he approaches his first full pro season.

The 6-foot-2, 175-pound center skated with the Black Aces and served as a reserve for the Bruins during their Stanley Cup playoff run, so he had been skating up until the Final ended in early June. That was the reason for his absence from the ice, but he still participated in the week, served as a leader among the Bruins prospects and continued to sound a determined, confident tone when it comes to helping the NHL team.

It won’t happen, of course, but Studnicka is so intent on getting to the NHL as fast as possible that he volunteered to play wing this coming season while knowing that the Bruins will have openings on the wing in NHL training camp.

“Anything to help the team, in my eyes. I’ll play any position. Obviously, my goal is to play with the big club, whether that’s right wing or center, I’m just going to work as hard as I can and compete,” said Studnicka, talking to the Bruins media with a pair of missing front teeth after an incident in the OHL last season. “I think going into any camp, you’re in the wrong place if you’re goal isn’t to make the team. That’s my goal going into this year, that was my goal last year and the year before. It should be everybody’s goal to come here and try and compete and play at a high level.”

That’s the sound of a kid that’s hungry to get to The Show.

That’s excellent news for the Bruins with a pair of top-6 centers in Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci that are on the wrong side of 30 years old. They could really use some young blood down the middle when it comes to their top-6, even if it’s a player that’s NHL-ready a year or two down the road, as both Bergeron and Krejci hit their mid-30’s.

The numbers were excellent in his final season at the junior level with 36 goals and 83 points for Oshawa and Niagara in 60 games played for them, and another 11 points (5 goals, 6 assists) in 11 playoff games before going pro. During that time he showed off the playmaking, the goal-scoring, the two-way play and the leadership that’s been part of the package since he was drafted in the second round back (53rdoverall) in 2017.

“I think I can contribute offensively and that’s what I’m going to be looking to do,” said Studnicka. “And just compete. Doing all the little things right. That’s something the Bruins always talk about along with winning battles. I just want to show them that I can compete at the NHL level.”

It’s a game the Bruins are looking forward to developing up close at the AHL level in 2019-20 and then deciding how quickly his ascension will be to the NHL level. One of his potential competitors for an NHL spot has gone back to Sweden in Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson, and another in Trent Frederic doesn’t have quite the same high-end offensive ability that Studnicka should have when he gains full maturity as a hockey player.

“He was very good,” said Bruins player development coordinator Jamie Langenbrunner. “I think a testament to who that kid is, he gets traded to Niagara and he’s wearing a letter to the team he was traded to within a month. That’s impressive. That means you’re stepping right in and doing the things coaches see from leaders. [He had a] good season."

“He continues to do the little things in the game that translate to being a good pro, When he came to us in Providence at the end, he had some good playoff games, stepped right into the lineup. (Niagara) lost on a Sunday or Monday and he was in our lineup three days later. He’s just continuing to grow, adding strength. He’s still skinny. He’s working at it and he’s doing everything he can. It’s just taking a little time with him.”

Studnicka had a goal and two points in four playoff games for the Providence Bruins at the end of the AHL season, and then practiced all spring with the Bruins while traveling with the NHL team and getting an up-close look at their run to the Stanley Cup Final.

That experience made him equal parts adept learner and anxious reserve awaiting for his own chance to experience the Stanley Cup playoffs.

But there’s no substitute for getting to watch Krejci and Bergeron prepare every day, even if it was from the outside watching inward.

“That was awesome,” said Studnicka. “One of the best times of my life. You get to watch the Stanley Cup Finals live. You get to travel with the team and see what it’s all about and you can just soak things in. Obviously, it was the stage for them and they deserved to be there.

“[It was] an unfortunate ending, but to be there to see it all unfold right in front of my eyes was really cool. [Bergeron and Krejci] are two high-end players in the National Hockey League, they have been for a long time and they will continue to do that. So you see what they do on the ice that’s given them success over all those years.”

Hopefully Studnicka was paying close to attention to No. 37 and No. 46 during the playoffs because he might just be called upon to help them as soon as next season if he shows that is game is NHL-ready at his next development phase in Providence.

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Danton Heinen "wanted to be an offensive guy," now Bruins need him to be more of that guy

Danton Heinen "wanted to be an offensive guy," now Bruins need him to be more of that guy

Danton Heinen knows that his numbers dipped from his rookie season to this past year’s sophomore campaign where he posted 11 goals and 34 points in 77 games. Still, the 24-year-old earned a big pay raise with his two-year, $5.6 million contract signed earlier in the week to avoid salary arbitration, so he knows he’ll be sticking around in Boston for the next couple of season.

Heinen will also be looking to regain some of the offensive mojo that he lost from the first half of his first NHL season when he scored 11 goals and 33 points in his first 43 games. Since then Heinen has just 16 goals and 48 points in his last 111 games, and he finished with a very quiet two goals in 24 games during Boston’s Stanley Cup playoff run.

So the young winger knows he’s going to need to start gaining a little ground back offensively headed into his third NHL campaign and regain some of that hungry swagger that he seemed to have coming right out of the game in his rookie campaign. The Bruins will need it after watching Marcus Johansson leave in unrestricted free agency with some pretty big job openings on the right wing side on two of Boston’s top three lines.

Certainly, there are young players that will get cracks at top-6 winger positions headed into next season, but Heinen is a guy that has the potential to clinch one of those gigs if he can find his offensive confidence. The responsible two-way play is definitely there and he’ll play no lower than third line wing on next season’s Bruins team, but the feeling is that there is certainly a higher ceiling for a player that left college hockey after two dominant seasons at the University of Denver.

“I’m going to continue to work on [the little details] because I think if you’re good at the little details good things happen, and you’re put in better spots on the ice. I’m going to continue to work on those details and then when you get chances, grade-A looks or [chances to] be an offensive guy that’s kind of… do your follow up there. That’s the kind of player I see myself being,” said the 6-foot-1, 188-pound Heinen. “Coming into the league, I wanted to be an offensive guy. I wanted to, you know, create more, and I’m going to keep on working at doing that, trying to produce more for the team.

“I think I also need to, you know, kind of get in a mindset where I’m shooting more and am more confident in my shot because, you know, different opportunities I might pass up or whatever. I believe in my shot, and I believe I can score. I think it’s just continuing believing in that and working on it.”

To Heinen’s point, his shots on goal dropped from 135 in his rookie season to 114 shots in the very same 77 games played last season. Some of it is about firing more pucks on the net and seizing the good scoring chances when the puck is on his stick. Some of it is about getting stronger in the battles areas of the ice and simply going there more often than he does right now.

The Bruins have certainly placed the investment in Heinen that they believe he’s going to take the next step offensively after carving out a nice, little third line winger niche for himself over the last couple of seasons. Now it’s up to the 24-year-old nice kid from British Columbia to seize the opportunity he’s been given and unlock some of the hidden parts of his two-way game that never fully emerged in a sophomore season where he was invisible on the ice a little too often.

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