BRIGHTON, Mass – The Bruins ended last season with rookie Karson Kuhlman manning the right wing on David Krejci’s line during the final two games of the Stanley Cup Final.
It appears that, barring a surprise performance in Bruins training camp or an injury, the Bruins will start the season the very same way a few weeks from now. Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy mentioned David Backes and Brett Ritchie as other potential candidates, and didn’t rule out Anders Bjork or Danton Heinen from getting looks there either.
“We know we have Kuhlman that can play [on the second line] and I don’t think he’s going to drop off. He may flat line, I don’t know, but I don’t think he’s going to get worse,” said Cassidy. “To me he’s a bit of a person that’s going to keep working on his craft and get more comfortable. From there, we had Backes out there and we know that’s not a full time solution. [Brett] Ritchie is a wild card. We don’t know if he can play out there. He got some reps today in practice and we’ll probably look at it for a game or two.
“Those are the guys that come to mind. It could go to Heinen if he plays his off-side. They played together last year with DeBrusk and he could go there if we feel like he can help there. Bjork is a wild card. He’s played there. But we have him on the left side and we’re going to try him there. We know would start opening night with Kuhlman there and we’re going to be fine. But we’ll look at it and see if there’s a better fit right away. Ritchie is somebody we don’t know, so he could get in there and win that battle [for the spot]. It’s a bit of what’s the best fit and how it’s going to affect the rest of your lineup.”
But the 23-year-old Kuhlman clearly showed the Bruins coaching staff something last season even if the three goals and five points in 11 games last season didn’t exactly scream out top-6 winger. He had some good games certainly, and was excellent in Game 6 of the Cup Final vs. the Blues after he replaced Backes in the B’s lineup against the St. Louis Blues.
He brings speed, two-way play, maximum effort and hockey smarts to the table, and those are all things that will help the Bruins at points for as long as he’s there. But let’s be honest here. There’s a reason that Kuhlman went undrafted during his career at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, and he was solid, not spectacular, in the AHL with 12 goals and 30 points in 58 games during his first season of pro hockey last year.
He’s good enough to be okay at the NHL level playing with a high level, creative player like Krejci, and he showed chemistry with the playmaking Czech and Jake DeBrusk in his limited time last season. It certainly sounds like he’s got a fan in Krejci, and that matters when it comes to his linemates.
“He’s got maybe a better shot than we’d seen his first time through in training camp,” said Cassidy, alluding to some goals he scored in the regular season and playoffs. “Then you talk to Krejci and he’s been around a long time. He’s had a lot of wingers and he’ll give you some feedback as well. [He says] Kuhlman gets to the right spots and makes plays at the right times. So some of it is your own eyes and some of it is trusting the guys on the ice that are playing with him.”
All of that is well and good, but he still scored only 15 goals and 35 points in 69 combined games between the AHL and NHL last season. He’s also just 5-foot-11, 185-pounds with a modest skill level that’s not going to help Boston’s difficulties scoring during even strength play last season.
It wouldn’t surprise anybody is Kuhlman is just good enough to be a place-holder until the Bruins find a permanent play-finishing solution on Krejci’s line. Certainly he’s not going to be confused with guys like Nathan Horton and Jarome Iginla that played on Krejci’s line during his best seasons with the Black and Gold.
So don’t be surprised if the Bruins are once again in search of a top-6 right wing sniper at the NHL trade deadline this season to eventually be an upgrade over Kuhlman. But for now, the Bruins will once again fix it on the fly for a few months after never finding a permanent solution this summer, and instead turning to the same, old in-house candidates that were never quite enough last season.
Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.