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Countdown to Bruins training camp: Is Karlsson ready to win third-line job?

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Countdown to Bruins training camp: Is Karlsson ready to win third-line job?

From now until the beginning of training camp, Bruins Insider Joe Haggerty is profiling players who will be on, or have a chance to be on, the 2018-19 Bruins. Today: Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson.

When Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson signed out of BU after his sophomore season, the expectation might have been that he’d quickly be in the NHL based on his two-way abilities and the maturity to his game at the NCAA ranks. That hasn’t happened for the 21-year-old center prospect to this point, but it could happen soon after a solid rookie campaign at the AHL level with 15 goals and 32 points in 58 games. Consider JFK one of the Bruins prospects close to an NHL breakthrough at this point after getting more accustomed to the speed and physicality last season.  

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What Happened Last Year: Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson didn’t make much of an impression during NHL training camp, and then went to Providence where he began to gather experience and log development time. There were injuries and slow periods, but Forsbacka Karlsson finished with a very strong 15 goals and 32 points of production in 58 games while centering Providence’s second line. Forsbacka gained valuable experience playing in all situations, sharpening his defensive skills and face-off abilities against improved competition, and built up enough in his own game to be much more competitive next time around in camp. A concussion knocked JFK out for most of the last six weeks of the season, however, and that put an unfortunate pause on what was a pretty strong opening campaign in the pros. 

Questions To Be Answered This Season: The only real question about JFK is whether he’s going to be ready to step up and seize the third line center job after the departure of free agent Riley Nash. The Bruins appear to be throwing a number of players into the mix for the third line center job with Sean Kuraly, Chris Wagner and Joakim Nordstrom all being considered for the job, and young prospects in JFK and Trent Frederic readying for their big NHL chances as well. The question is whether JFK is ready to handle the physicality and speed at the NHL level where much is expected out of a third line center right out of the bat, or whether another half-season of AHL development time would be more beneficial for the 21-year-old former college player.  

In Their Words: “It’s likely internal at this point, yes, and we have some very strong candidates. We have some young players that certainly want that slot, and we have a couple of guys internally that I think can move up and play that slot. At times when Anaheim was really injured at the first part of the year, Chris Wagner played in third-line roles, more of a shutdown situation, which we’ve used our players as. Sean Kuraly is certainly a player that wants to have a bigger role, and then you have the three younger players (including Forsbacka Karlsson) that we feel [can compete], and we also have a couple of other guys that we’ve added to the group that we’re going to go to work with and see where they fit in.” – Don Sweeney, talking about the third-line center competition headed into training camp.  

Overall Outlook: The 21-year-old Forsbacka Karlsson will go as far in training camp as his play allows him to with the Bruins. If JFK has reached the point where he can compete for an NHL job as the third-line center, then the Bruins will be getting a skilled, smart and dedicated two-way center able to hold down a top-9 center position. If JFK clearly isn’t ready and still needs another season, or at least a half-year, of gained strength, improved conditioning and learning the ins and outs of the NHL world, then the Bruins will move to the next group of candidates including Trent Frederic, Sean Kuraly and Chris Wagner among others. Third-line center is an important enough position that the Bruins will make sure their young guys are ready to go if called into battle, but they’re also hedging their bets with viable veteran options in case the kids need more development.     

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Ilya Kovalchuk would still look good in a B's uniform for the right price

Ilya Kovalchuk would still look good in a B's uniform for the right price

As the Bruins lament the lack of scoring from the middle of their forward lineup amid a five-game losing streak, a viable option might be just about to drop into their lap.

The latest out of Los Angeles is that Ilya Kovalchuk is about to have his contract terminated with the Kings after last playing a game for them on Nov. 19 and essentially having been told by Kings management a month ago that his time with the organization is over. The 36-year-old Russian winger has three goals and nine points in 17 games this season, but is also a minus-10 and hasn’t been all that good at any point the past few seasons with the Kings.

Kovalchuk had 16 goals and 34 points along with a minus-26 last season in 64 games, but clearly wasn’t a good fit with an L.A. team nowhere close to playoff-caliber. His three-year, $18.75 million deal was viewed at the time as a questionable contract signed to an aging, once-great player coming out of the KHL, but it was the cost to win Kovalchuk over other teams such as the Bruins that had also shown interest.

Certainly, Kovalchuk is no longer the guy that carried the New Jersey Devils to the Stanley Cup Final in 2012, or a player that’s capable of putting up 37 goals and 83 points as he did that season. Kovalchuk is still a 6-foot-3, 230-pound winger that can shoot, score goals and finish off plays as evidenced by his 19 goals in 81 games the past two seasons while doing it for a Kings team that’s severely lacking offensive pieces around him.  

But if Kovalchuk is either bought out of his contract or granted some kind of release from the Kings, it’s still perfectly reasonable to theorize that the Russian sniper would reach higher offensive levels skating in a second-line role with a natural playmaker such as David Krejci. It’s unclear at this point whether any interested team would have to put up his contract or be free to sign him to a new deal, but there’s no question his value is down after two rough years in L.A.

Sure, it looks like Kovalchuk is a severe defensive liability at this point in his career given that he was minus-36 over the past two seasons, but there are enough responsible defensive players for the B’s to make up for it.

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What they don’t have right now is a finisher who can spark the second line, or somebody with a natural scoring touch for the second power-play unit as well. It was a problem Bruce Cassidy highlighted after the 3-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday night where they didn’t get much of anything from their middle two forward lines. It’s the same kind of issue that dogged the B’s in previous losses to quality opponents Colorado and Washington earlier in the stretch of five losses in a row and earlier in the season when their Perfection Line carried them.

“The top line again was creating. We’re just not getting anything from the middle of the lineup in terms of offense,” lamented Cassidy. “You need four lines to produce for you in this league on a regular basis. It might not be [on Thursday]. It might be Saturday [at Florida], but you need some offense to sort of balance things out.

“We need some guys to get going here a little bit. [They need] to at least find their opportunities and then they’ll go in. I’m not sure they’re even finding their opportunities yet, so that’s step one that they are chasing.”

It will depend on the details, of course, but if the Bruins can land Kovalchuk without surrendering much in the way of actual assets or big-time salary for a player that flamed out in Los Angeles, they need to seriously think about doing it. 

If nothing else, he gives them a much better top-six wing option than they now have with Brett Ritchie, Danton Heinen, David Backes or Karson Kuhlman, and fits along the lines of whatever the Bruins are hoping to upgrade their forward group with at the trade deadline.

It may be that Kovalchuk simply decides to head back to Mother Russia for a big-money deal and eschews the NHL moving forward after he was a spectacular flop in LA over the last couple of seasons.

Given how interested the B’s were in Kovalchuk a couple of summers ago as a free agent and how little they might have to spend to get him for the rest of the season, the Bruins need to do some serious tire-kicking on the former No. 1 overall pick who could be a revitalized force playing in a top-six role for a deep, skilled Bruins team looking to fortify a Cup run.

 


 

Losing streak revealing a Bruins flaw that could be fatal if not addressed

Losing streak revealing a Bruins flaw that could be fatal if not addressed

TAMPA  – The problems are many when a team has lost five in a row as the Bruins have.

It wasn’t a desperate Bruins dressing room in the aftermath of their 3-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning Thursday night at Amalie Arena, nor should it be. The B’s still hold an eight-point lead in the Atlantic Division despite being in the throes of their first losing streak of the season.

As Tuukka Rask said succinctly afterward, “We hate to lose, but we’re not going to go 80-3 or whatever it was that [Brett] Ritchie said.”

A strong, winning effort against the Florida Panthers on Saturday night would salvage a rough trip and get the Bruins spinning in the right direction in short order.

That’s not really the problem.

The issue with the Bruins is the same old problems that cropped up against the St. Louis Blues last June in the Stanley Cup Final and two years ago in the second-round series against Tampa Bay. The flaws are springing up again with a series of heavy, intense playoff-style games against quality opponents.

When the Bruins go up against opponents such as Colorado, Washington and Tampa Bay, the offense gets one-dimensional and the effort to score becomes challenging if the special teams are playing at a dominant clip. 

Bruce Cassidy sounded the alarm about it after watching another loss to Tampa Bay where the Bruins scored just enough to lose. There wasn’t enough going on offensively aside from the "Perfection Line" accounting for a first-period lead and a late, desperate goal from John Moore.

“The top line again was creating. We’re just not getting anything from the middle of the lineup in terms of offense,” lamented Cassidy. “You need four lines to produce for you in this league on a regular basis. It might not be [on Thursday]. It might be Saturday, but you need some offense to sort of balance things out. We need some guys to get going here a little bit. [They need] to at least find their opportunities and then they’ll go in. I’m not sure they’re even finding their opportunities yet, so that’s step one that they are chasing.”

Can Cassidy put his finger on what the issue is with the middle lines?

“Some of it is inside. You start playing some good teams that are fast, Colorado, Washington and Tampa Bay. It’s almost like playoff hockey in December. A lot of those guys in that room have lived it and they know what it’s about,” said Cassidy. “Make a decision, do you want to play that way or not? Then some of it is self-inflicted where we won neutral zone face-offs, and harmless kind of plays where it doesn’t get in, we turn it over and then take penalties against a potent power play. Is it the PK? Well, it’s a great power play and we really didn’t help ourselves in those situations.”

Cassidy is spot-on about not enough from the supporting players in the kind of games the B’s will be in the postseason. Jake DeBrusk finished with zero points and had zero shots on net in two of the three games against Colorado, Washington and Tampa. Danton Heinen had zero points and a minus-4 in those three games with five shots on net. Anders Bjork picked up an assist in the loss to Tampa Bay, but managed just two shots on net in the three games against the Avs, Capitals and Lightning. Brett Ritchie has zero points and a minus-2 in the three games since coming back from injury. Even David Krejci has no points, a minus-1 rating and just two shots on net in those three games.

The dilemma facing the Bruins is this: Is this just a preview of what’s going to eventually doom them in the postseason if nothing is done about it?

Certainly, the Bruins weren’t playing their best in the loss to Colorado, but the efforts against Washington and Tampa Bay were more focused and had the kind of urgency that Boston has played with most of the season. And it still wasn’t enough when push came to shove and underlying flaws came forward for a team that’s a little small, a little short on real scoring depth against quality teams and beatable going up against big, deep teams with a physical defensemen corps. 

One would hope that Don Sweeney and Cam Neely were watching closely the past week and took these losses for what they are. The Bruins are showing that they are going to need some help when things get tough in the postseason and that they could use at least one more viable source of offense among their top-six forwards.

They have a bunch of talented kids up front who have shown a propensity to disappear when things get tough against the hard teams and that isn’t going to help the Bruins much this spring. There’s enough of a sample size now to predict that isn’t going to change when it comes to DeBrusk, Bjork, Heinen and Ritchie. The Bruins need to do something about it ahead of the NHL trade deadline.

Whether it’s kicking the tires on Taylor Hall, or a more realistic target such as Los Angeles Kings right wing Tyler Toffoli, the Bruins have shown the past few games that they need some outsource things for help up front if they want to finish what they started last spring.

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