NHL training camps are all about veterans getting back into shape and readying for a long 82-game regular season. It’s about coaches trying out new combinations and pairings on the ice, and tinkering in exhibition games where the end results don’t really matter.
But for just about everybody involved it’s also about the camp battles, when there’s an obvious opening on an NHL roster and a number of candidates competing for the job head-to-head throughout the preseason. That will most noticeably be the case with Riley Nash’s vacated third-line center position, after he signed a multi-year contract with the Columbus Blue Jackets on July 1.
Nash centered Danton Heinen and David Backes on the third line for the bulk of the regular season, and brought a strong two-way presence to a line that was consistently Boston’s second-best for most of the year. So it’s obvious that the Bruins are going to need a strong two-way player to replace Nash, and they’re also ideally looking for a center that can replace the 15 goals and 41 points he racked up in 76 games.
That’s a tall order, and the Bruins are going to find their third-line pivot by throwing numbers at the lineup vacancy over the next month.
Newly signed veteran forward Chris Wagner and last season’s fourth-line center Sean Kuraly represent the veteran players vying for the spot, but the Bruins are also going to push three different prospects into the competition as well. Former BU standout Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, former first-round pick Trent Frederic, and 19-year-old junior hockey sensation Jack Studnicka will all get lengthy looks at the spot over the next few weeks, too.
All three young centers will head to China and get a long evaluation under the watchful eyes of head coach Bruce Cassidy and assistant Jay Pandolfo.
“The third line center…could it be Sean Kuraly or could it be [Trent Frederic, Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson or Jack Studnicka] that we talked about?” said Cassidy. “We’ve got a few other guys flying under the radar like [Martin] Bakos coming in from Europe that we don’t know that much about. Those are the internal competition situations that we have for us, and realistically I think we may have two spots to fill.”
Each player brings their own sets of strengths and weaknesses to the table, obviously. But let’s focus here on the rookies, while not paying any short shrift to the physicality and blue-collar work ethics of guys like Wagner and Kuraly.
JFK is the only one of the three youngsters that’s actually suited up for an NHL game, so that might give him something of an advantage in that he’s been there, done that before this camp. The 21-year-old had 15 goals and 32 points in 58 games for the P-Bruins last season while showing strong two-way ability, and a skill level that might be the highest of any of three young players.
“The way I would put it is that his skill level sets him apart from a lot of people,” said P-Bruins head coach Jay Leach.
To add to that, JFK certainly sounded like he’s going into this training camp determined to win an NHL job when the dust settles.
“Absolutely. [Winning the third line center job] is what I’m hoping for and working for here in camp. I want to play my game. I want to show them that it’s my job and that’s what I want to do,” said Forsbacka Karlsson, when asked if the B’s third line center job was in his grasp. “It’s a little bit of a transition going from college to pro. You have a few more games and you have a lot more free time to yourself off the ice. Those things were the biggest things I had to adjust to, but last year was great for me [to make adjustments.”
Perhaps the most pro-style player in the mix, though, is Frederic, with his 6-foot-3, 215-pound size, his in-your-face style of play and a strength that’s going to allow him to instantly win battles in the important areas of the ice. One could envision Frederic teaming with David Backes to be an extremely rough-and-tumble third line capable of checking opponents, bullying them and imposing their will with their overwhelming size and strength.
“Freddy is a little bit old school in that he’s in your face, and he’s not afraid to get at you,” said Leach of Frederic, who had five goals and eight points in 13 games with Providence at the end of the season. “He’s not afraid of confrontation. He’ll show that at any level. He came right in with us and went after a guy in Lehigh Valley I think the second night he played with us. So he’s got that, he’s got the ability to skate and he’s got some hands.
“He was a little raw when he came to us, but literally within four weeks it’s as if we were seeing a pro player. He’s got a huge upside to watch and he’s a lot of fun to watch to be honest with you.”
Last but not least is Studnicka, who is the real wild card as a 19-year-old kid that still has some junior hockey eligibility if he doesn’t make the NHL roster this season. Studnicka is coming off 22 goals and 72 points for the OHL's Oshawa Generals last season, and then he went out and scored a point-per-game in a five game audition with Providence at the end of the season. Studnicka has to know that it’s going to take a monumental effort to make the jump from juniors to the NHL as a teen-ager, but it’s certainly been done before.
He was also head and shoulders above the other prospects at development camp earlier this summer, so Studnicka’s time is clearly nearing even if it’s not this season.
“I think we’re just trying to have a good time. There’s obviously internal competition, but at the same time you just want to focus on playing your game and laying it all on the line,” said Studnicka. “I think I should be [in the conversation]. I’ve never thought I could do more, so I think I’ve shown my skill set well and I’m looking forward to the opportunity.
“[The trip to China] is going to be a really good experience for me, and it’s going to give me a chance to show I can compete with some real high level competition. It’s going to be a fun experience to go through that with all the guys.”
So will it be the smooth, two-way JFK, the hard-charging Frederic or the goal-scoring Studnicka when it comes to manning the third line on B’s opening night? That’s what training camp is for, after all, and we’re about to see that positional battle get underway at full tilt.