Bruins

Karson Kuhlman ready for a big top-6 chance with the Bruins

Karson Kuhlman ready for a big top-6 chance with the Bruins

BRIGHTON, Mass. -- Karson Kuhlman admits he has a chip in his shoulder, and that chip is part of the reason why he’s readying for his first full NHL season with the Boston Bruins.

The 24-year-old undrafted forward from the University of Minnesota Duluth enjoyed a massively successful first pro hockey season going from “just another guy” at training camp to a top-6 winger for the Bruins in the final three games of the Stanley Cup Final against the St. Louis Blues. Now Kuhlman is trending toward once again starting the season as the right wing on Boston’s second line alongside David Krejci and Jake DeBrusk, and do whatever he can to provide a consistent two-way player in that spot.

It goes without saying that he’s looking forward to the challenge, and hopes to take another step offensively this season after combining for 15 goals and 35 points in 69 games between the NHL and AHL last season.

“[Last year] was a great experience. It was obviously not the way we wanted it to end. That one is going to sting for a long time. But I think an important part of the summer was mentally getting over that loss and turning the page,” said Kuhlman. “Besides the weight room and being bigger, stronger and faster, I just want to be able to show up every game and be at 100 percent against the elite athletes in this league.

“Beyond that, I worked a lot at being around the net more to get my scoring touch down, just shooting more pucks and getting to the net and being better around there. If you’re open [Krejci] is going to find you and he’s one of the best at it. I just don’t want to let him down and not put the puck in the net. I want to be at 100 percent just playing my game.” 

Certainly there will be questions as to whether Kuhlman is the long-term answer there after posting three goals and five points in 11 regular season games for the Bruins last season. Will Kuhlman finish enough of Krejci’s setups to stay on the second line? Will the Bruins get enough production from their second line to solve some of their even strength scoring problems from last season?

These are important questions for the Black and Gold.

The likeliest outcome for Boston’s second line is that the Bruins will eventually be looking for a more accomplished offensive player next to Krejci. After all, we’re talking about a player who had modest numbers of 12 goals and 30 points in 58 games in the AHL last season, and that doesn’t even project to be a 20-goal scorer at the NHL level.

So it’s a realistic scenario that the Bruins will once again be upgrading on the wing as they did last spring when they traded for Marcus Johansson at the deadline.

But there’s also some credit due for a guy like Kuhlman who's making the most of his abilities, and beat out more heralded competition like David Backes, Anders Bjork, Zach Senyshyn, Peter Cehlarik and others for a top-6 spot. A lot of it is based on the dependable nature of Kuhlman’s game on the ice, his overall skating speed and the trust level that Cassidy and Co. have with him on the Krejci line.

“I know [Kuhlman] can play there. I’ve seen it. I haven’t seen him with [David] Krejci this particular preseason, but I’m comfortable with how we plays [in a top-6 role]. We’ve just got to make the decision, what’s best for the team. We’ve got some new players in here, did they get a look first?” said Cassidy. “We’ll talk about all of that stuff. But to answer your question, yes. I like the way Kuhlman plays.

“He complements Krejci. I’ve said this before, [Kuhlman is] not your typical second-line right winger because his résumé isn’t as extensive. But he’s gone in there and did a good job for us, and [that’s] an important thing for us.”

The smart money is on the Bruins starting the season with Kuhlman on the second line based on how last season ended, but Krejci’s right wing is absolutely still a developing situation that will find resolution over the course of the entire season.

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New additions Nick Ritchie, Ondrej Kase prove they'll help Bruins

New additions Nick Ritchie, Ondrej Kase prove they'll help Bruins

BOSTON — Both newly traded players got into the Bruins lineup on Thursday night against the Dallas Stars, and it looked pretty darn encouraging for the Black and Gold with the new pieces fitting nicely with the rest of the lineup.

Hulking left winger Nick Ritchie scored his first goal in a Bruins uniform amidst a two-point effort and Ondrej Kase showed speed and skill along with a decent two-way game while finishing with two shots on net in 15:16 of ice time.

Both wingers showed instant chemistry with David Krejci on the second line in the 4-3 win at TD Garden, and Ritchie showed smooth hands for a big man playing the give-and-go game with David Pastrnak on the game-winner in the third period.

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There were some that believed the Bruins' moves at the trade deadline were as much about opening salary cap space as they were about actually improving the team, but Ritchie particularly showed he’s got some game in a win that pushed the B’s to a seven-point lead in the division over the Tampa Bay Lightning.

“I think Nick [Ritchie] was much better than the other night, a little more into the game,” said Bruce Cassidy on Ritchie, who was okay in his B’s debut on Tuesday after flying cross-country from California to hop into the lineup. “[The] puck was finding him. We knew that would happen. I just thought it was unfair the other night.

“You fly in, it’s a lot of newness going on. He’s had a couple of days to acclimate a little bit. Listen, I’m not going to say he’s going to get two points every night, but he’ll probably be somewhere in between there and that’s what we expect out of him. [He’s] a bigger body, especially in this type of game I thought. They’re a heavy team, they finish checks and you’ve got to work to get to the net. I thought he did a real good job with that.”

The 6-foot-2, 230-pounder showed exactly what he’ll bring to the table and, perhaps more importantly, displayed the skill to hang in a top-6 role after teaming up with Pastrnak on the scoring play in the third period. There will be more opportunities for the big winger to throw his weight around and really set a physical tone once he begins getting comfortable in Boston, but there’s every reason to think he’s exactly the kind of player Boston needed going into the trade deadline.

Certainly, Ritchie was more noticeable in one win on Thursday night than Danton Heinen had been in the last few months of a season where his subtle qualities didn’t exactly amount to anything significant on the ice.

“It was good. It was nice to score. It was nice to win,” said Ritchie. “My energy levels were higher and I definitely felt better with my legs. I definitely played a better game and the team played better as well. It was just a simple shot, but whenever it goes in, it obviously feels really good.

“Early on [as a line] we played a lot together and we had some good shifts, and we really got in on the fore-check. It was good.”

As for Kase, he showed on his very first shift of the game that he’s got speed to burn on the second line and flashed some slick offensive instincts as things went along. It didn’t add to any offensive production with Krejci in his first game back from injury, but it’s also the first time Kase has played at all since early February with a suspected concussion.

So now it’s about the Bruins keeping the right winger healthy and letting him build up his game in Boston.

“[Nick] Ritchie with [David] Krejci, I think could go somewhere as long as they have some chemistry, as long as there’s some pace on the other side. That could be Ondrej [Kase], if we drop Pasta [David Pastrnak] down at times,” said Cassidy. “But as long as there’s some pace [from the right wing]. I’ll look at pairs. [Jake] DeBrusk, [Charlie] Coyle, I think, like I said, I like the way they’ve played together [on the third line]. Even Anders [Bjork] when he’s over there. I thought our fourth line was contributing again tonight. Unfortunately, Wags [Chris Wagner] got hurt there in that scuffle, but I thought they did a good job as well.”

Clearly the forward combinations are in flux as a passive Anders Bjork spent most of the second period nailed to the Bruins bench, and the fourth line may be switched around now that Wagner is banged up with an upper body injury.

But Ritchie showed he’s got the talent to fill the Bruins' need for a big, physical winger with some skill and Kase gave indications he’ll be a player who can create some 5-on-5 offense for a B’s team that doesn’t do enough of that in crunch time.

For those with questions about how much improvement the Bruins made with their deadline moves, the win over the Stars showed strong indications that Ritchie and Kase are both going to play roles in making the Bruins a tougher group to defend in the postseason.

Why winning NHL Presidents' Trophy may not be in Bruins' best interest

Why winning NHL Presidents' Trophy may not be in Bruins' best interest

First, a disclaimer: The Boston Bruins should try to win their remaining games. The better your team is playing, the better it is for everyone in the dressing room.

But if the Tampa Bay Lightning overtake the Bruins in the Atlantic Division and secure the Presidents' Trophy for the NHL's best record?

Well ... that wouldn't be the worst development.

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Here's the first reason: Whether you're superstitious or not, the Presidents' Trophy has been a death knell for its recipients. The last club to finish with the NHL's best regular-season record and win the Stanley Cup was the Chicago Blackhawks (at the Bruins' expense) in 2013.

Here's how the next six Presidents' Trophy winners fared:

2014 Bruins: Lost in second round
2015 New York Rangers: Lost in Eastern Conference Final
2016 Washington Capitals: Lost in second round
2017 Capitals: Lost in second round
2018 Nashville Predators: Lost in second round
2019 Lightning: Lost in first round

Since the NHL adopted its current playoff format for the 2013-14 season, only one Presidents' Trophy winner has made it out of the second round. The Columbus Blue Jackets swept the Lightning clean out of the first round in 2019.

There's more than just bad karma at play here. In the current format, each division winner plays a Wild Card team in the first round, while the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds in each division face off.

Guess how many division winners beat their Wild Card opponents in last year's playoffs? Zero.

That's a bit of an aberration, but it's not far from the norm in the topsy-turvy Stanley Cup Playoffs. Aside from the 2013 Blackhawks, the 2018 Capitals are the only other team in the last 12 years to win the Stanley Cup after winning their division (and they had the Eastern Conference's third-best record).

Playoff trends aside, there's a more simple reason why Boston shouldn't mind losing out on the Presidents' Trophy.

If the playoffs started now, the Bruins would face the Columbus Blue Jackets, who have won both of their matchups with Boston this season -- including a 3-0 shutout on Jan. 14 -- and took the B's to six games in the second round last year.

If the Bruins slip to the No. 2 seed in the Atlantic, they'll likely face the Toronto Maple Leafs -- who haven't beaten Boston in a playoff series since 1959.

Bruce Cassidy's club currently stands seven points clear of the Lightning (92 to 85) with 17 games remaining. The St. Louis Blues (86 points) and Capitals (84) points also are in the Presidents' Trophy conversation.

The B's want to be playing well entering the postseason, and finishing with the NHL's best record obviously would be proof of that. If they happen to take their foot off the gas, though, they could wind up in better position to win the Cup race.