After he filled the role well in the Bruins’ slump-busting win at Florida on Saturday, Charlie Coyle is going to be left on David Krejci’s right wing by coach Bruce Cassidy at least for the start of Boston’s next game against Los Angeles at home Tuesday.
If Coyle becomes a permanent member of the Bruins’ second line, though, that could mean they’ll be shopping for a third-line center instead of a second-line wing between now and the Feb. 24 NHL trade deadline.
Sean Kuraly has moved up to the third line, and there’s no doubt he could handle centering Danton Heinen and Anders Bjork for an extended period of time. But the Bruins are stronger when Kuraly is centering Joakim Nordstrom and Chris Wagner, forming a line that’s a fourth line in title only. We saw during last season, and the run to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, that Cassidy used that line as more of a second line, giving it difficult defensive assignments and harder zone starts.
Cassidy was asked Monday if there could be an internal option to fill that third-line center role. Jack Studnicka, in his first year of pro hockey, has been red-hot with Providence of the AHL, sharing the team scoring lead with 24 points with Paul Carey. Studnicka also didn’t look overwhelmed in his two-game NHL stint last month.
Cassidy could’ve pumped the brakes on the idea that a 20-year-old that weighs 175 pounds might be the answer for the Bruins, but he didn’t shoot down the idea.
“He’s ahead of schedule at Providence. He’s having a real good year. I thought he did some good things when he was here as well. We moved him to the wing the one night, which as I said was not ideal. So he could make our job interesting in terms of pushing his way up,” Cassidy said.
“And as a third-line center, coming into the NHL, you’re playing against third lines. That’s what we tried to do with JFK [prospect Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson> and a couple other guys over the years, Freddy [Trent Frederic> a little bit when he was here. So that’s not a bad place to start. So we’re not precluding him from doing that, we just see him more down the road as a top six. But could he start as a third-line center, playing with a Bjork and a Heinen? It’s still some skill guys, but responsible guys, that could happen. I don’t know if that’s in our future right now, we’re going to leave Sean Kuraly there. … But if he keeps going and keeps pushing, he’s the best guy and that’s what we decide to do because we’re not happy with our roster or injury, then he could absolutely be a guy that comes up and is that third-line center.”
How quickly the Bruins and many of their fans forget what it was like getting rag dolled by the St. Louis Blues last June. And the Bruins didn’t face the heavy but skilled Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning in last year’s playoffs, but might have to do so this year. The bulky New York Islanders could also be in the way of Boston reaching the Final again. Racking up points in the AHL and playing a strong, two-way game in the NHL, particularly in the playoffs, are two vastly different assignments, and Studnicka should not be counted on to do the latter.
Just a month ago someone in the Bruins front office told WEEI.com that Studnicka still needed to get stronger and gain more pro experience before he could be an option. Did he get bit by a radioactive spider in the past month?
Teams with Stanley Cup aspirations and cap space should not be considering a kid with barely a quarter season of pro hockey experience to be centering a third line, even if that team is deep enough to insulate that third line because of the strength of its fourth and second lines. There’s no reason to risk accelerating Studnicka’s development too soon, but more than anything it’s not worth the risk to leave Cassidy’s lineup thin if things don’t work out, especially once the roster is frozen past the trade deadline.
Studnicka should definitely be an option if injuries ravage the roster, although, even then, more experienced AHLers like Frederic and Carey might be better options for Boston. But if Coyle is going to be the second-line right wing, the Bruins have to move to solidify the third with a J-G Pageau-type acquisition.
It’s looking more and more like Studnicka will be part of the Bruins’ future at center, but the plan should not be to make that future begin this season.