Ondrej Kase is not going to cure all that ails the second and third lines, but the Bruins need him to be part of the solution.
Kase has been back with the team for a week now after missing all of its two-week return-to-play camp in Boston as well as the first handful of days in Toronto while stuck in a still-unexplained extended quarantine.
Given the chance to explain his absence or clarify anything during a Zoom call with the media last Saturday, Kase declined.
So be it. Dwelling on three weeks of lost time doesn’t accomplish much now. What matters now is what Kase can give the Bruins going forward. Barring a last-minute setback, we’ll get our first chance to see what that might be in Sunday’s round-robin finale against the Capitals.
There had been some thought that Kase’s ramp-up period might be even longer and that he might even find himself as a healthy scratch if other guys were playing well and lines were clicking in his absence.
Well, that’s not the case. Through three games in Toronto (one exhibition game and two round-robin games), the Bruins have yet to get a single point from their second or third line.
The fourth line has done its part so far, scoring two of the Bruins’ three round-robin goals. The first line hasn’t yet looked like itself and certainly needs to be much better, but at least there’s a lengthy track record there that gives you some confidence they’ll figure it out. It’s hard to be confident about anything in the middle six, though.
There have been a couple promising flashes, but nothing has stuck. Top prospect Jack Studnicka looked good in the exhibition game against Columbus playing with David Krejci and Jake DeBrusk, but then had what coach Bruce Cassidy called “some boo-boos” against the Flyers on Sunday and was a healthy scratch against the Lightning on Wednesday.
Anders Bjork, Charlie Coyle and Karson Kuhlman looked like a good line that could control play and create chances for much of Sunday’s game, but they couldn’t finish those chances and were also on the ice for two goals against.
Cassidy’s frustration has been evident in his throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach to the middle six. Even the one combination that was supposed to have some chemistry hasn’t, as Krejci and DeBrusk have been unable to rekindle their past success and have instead looked like the same players who were slumping before the pause, which resulted in them being split up then and split up again now.
The latest toss on Wednesday didn’t stick any better than those before it. Krejci’s new line with Nick Ritchie and Kuhlman on his wings was flat-out bad. They got pinned in their own zone for the opening shift of the game, culminating in a Bruins penalty as they chased the puck, and things barely got better from there. They wound up out-attempted 12-7, outshot 8-4, and out-scoring chanced 5-2.
DeBrusk moved to right wing on a line with Coyle and Bjork. They looked a little better than Krejci’s line, but certainly weren’t anything to write home about. DeBrusk didn’t look particularly comfortable on the right side -- not that he’s looked too comfortable on the left recently either -- and didn’t register a shot on goal.
Kase isn’t going to fix all of that, and it would be extremely unreasonable to think he can. But the Bruins desperately need him to be part of the fix and not just another interchangeable question mark. They already have plenty of those.
Of course, for now, Kase is a question mark. After coming over from Anaheim at the trade deadline, he played just six games with Boston before the pause. He was put on a line with Krejci -- with a little bit of DeBrusk on the left at first and then a little bit of Ritchie, with whom he had played in Anaheim -- but they weren’t able to find a whole lot of chemistry.
The Bruins’ summer camp would have been a great place to try to find some, but alas, Kase was unable to attend. Again, doesn’t do any good to dwell on what could have been. What Kase needs to do worry about far more than chemistry is getting his own game up to speed and playing well. Same goes for everyone in this middle-six group really. Krejci and DeBrusk’s chemistry, with each other or with other players, isn’t going to matter if they’re not playing well individually.
But Kase absolutely has the ability to be a difference-maker for the Bruins. He’s fast, he’s smart, and he’s good with the puck on his stick, which allows him to drive play in transition. He has the skill and vision to make things happen offensively.
His finishing is where you’re not quite sure what you’re getting. He likes to shoot and he scored 20 goals in 66 games in 2017-18, then 11 in 30 games in 2018-19, which comes out to a 30-goal pace over 82 games. But he also suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in 2018-19 and then scored just seven goals in 55 games this season, as his shooting percentage dropped to 4.9% from 11.7% the year before.
It’s possible that’s just bad luck, or not getting as many quality chances due to the lack of talent around him in Anaheim, or lingering effects from the shoulder injury, or some combination of all three.
The Bruins obviously saw something they liked, though. While part of the trade that brought him here was a David Backes salary dump, they also gave up a first-round pick. Cassidy, general manager Don Sweeney and team president Cam Neely have all made it clear that he was an important part of their plan for this postseason.
Despite his delayed return and all the obstacles that come with that, he remains an important part of that plan. It’s clear that he was brought here to be the solution to the rotating door on Krejci’s right, and he’s going to get the opportunity to be that.
“The trade was made for that purpose originally, to see how he fit with Krejci,” Cassidy said Wednesday. “We know we can drop (David Pastrnak) down, but then who goes up? It would be nice if Ondrej and David got some chemistry, a guy that likes to make plays, to a guy that likes to shoot. They can work one-timers because they shoot the same way.
“That was the decision originally. It just hasn’t worked out that way because of the pause obviously and Ondrej’s setback. That’s what we want it to look like. Who’s on the left side, Jake and David have to develop chemistry and they have to start getting some results if we’re going to keep them together. If not, then Charlie Coyle will play with Jake. In this case, Ritchie or Bjork down the road if we think he’s a better fit with Krech.”
This isn’t going to be easy for Kase, but nothing in the playoffs is. Teams that win in the postseason have players step up and do what's needed of them even when circumstances aren't ideal.
So welcome aboard, Ondrej. The Bruins need you.