Jack Studnicka getting invited to the Bruins' return-to-play camp was expected. He's their top prospect, he was one of the "black aces" called up for last year's playoff run, and he had been at or close to the top of their call-up list for a while.
What wasn't expected was Studnicka emerging as a very realistic option for a key spot in the Bruins lineup.
Sure, the 21-year-old was probably a little closer to cracking the lineup than some of his other Providence Bruins teammates who got the camp invite, but he still seemed destined to be something like the 14th or 15th forward when practices started.
Two weeks later, Studnicka appears to be the most likely choice to be the Bruins' No. 2 right wing for their exhibition game against the Columbus Blue Jackets Thursday night, and potentially beyond that.
There are obviously a couple key developments that have led to this point. The first is that the Bruins' projected top two right wings, David Pastrnak and Ondrej Kase, missed the entirety of the Bruins' two-week return-to-play camp.
Someone had to get those open practice reps. Anders Bjork and Karson Kuhlman were obvious choices as right wings with NHL experience, and sure enough they both saw time on those top two lines. But Studnicka, a natural center, also got some looks there, initially as part of a rotation with Bjork and Kuhlman.
That brings us to the second key development: Studnicka made the most of his opportunity. He practiced hard and looked good in scrimmage situations, whether that was on the first line with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand or the second line with David Krejci and Jake DeBrusk.
As camp went on, Studnicka stopped rotating between lines and started to settle into a day-in, day-out spot next to Krejci, while Bjork did the same on the top line next to Bergeron. Studnicka has remained on the second line through the Bruins' first two practices in Toronto, while Bjork has dropped down to the third line with Pastrnak returning.
Coach Bruce Cassidy has liked what he's seen from Studnicka there, and noted that his offensive upside over some other options gives him a leg up. Perhaps just as importantly, Krejci has liked what he's seen from Studnicka as well.
"Talked to David about his right-side options. Have done a lot of that over the last few years," Cassidy joked before getting serious. "He likes the way Jack plays. He makes plays in traffic. He’s much more confident with the puck than maybe in training camp in September, October."
Bergeron has also noticed a "huge step forward" from Studnicka since training camp before the season.
"I think he’s a very good player, very talented," Bergeron said of Studnicka. "It’s pretty amazing seeing him from training camp to now. He’s taken a huge step forward. He seems to just be getting better. Got stronger also. His speed, it seems like he’s also getting faster, which is scary. Very good player, smart, seems to play the right way."
And Studnicka says he feels much more comfortable playing at this level now than he did last spring as a black ace, or in September during training camp, or in November during a brief call-up.
"Definitely feel the most comfortable I have throughout training camps and black aces and stuff like that," Studnicka said. "Every time I’m able to join the team in a situation like this, I think I get more comfortable, just getting to know the guys, being around pretty much in a scenario like this 24/7. Definitely every day gets easier, but in terms of comfortability, I think 100 percent comfortable now in comparison to past times when I would’ve been nervous or almost a little starstruck to share the ice with some of these guys."
Bjork's spot on the top line in practice was always temporary. As soon as Pastrnak was cleared to get back on the ice, he was going right back to his usual spot on the top line, which is exactly what happened Monday.
Studnicka's spot, however, may not be quite so temporary. Kase still hasn't been cleared to join the Bruins in Toronto, and it's unclear when that might actually happen. It's also expected he'll have to quarantine for four more days once he gets there due to Canadian travel restrictions. Then he'll have to get back up to game speed.
That means Thursday's exhibition game is already out of the question, and Sunday's first round-robin game against the Philadelphia Flyers almost certainly is as well. Cassidy said Thursday could be a good "test run" for the DeBrusk-Krejci-Studnicka line. He also acknowledged that if Kase's absence stretches on and someone is performing well in his place, it won't be automatic that Kase goes right back into the lineup once he's cleared, especially since he only played six games with the team before the pause after coming over at the trade deadline.
"Ondrej came late. He came at the deadline, and that's not a negative. It's just I don't know him," Cassidy said. "I don't know the player well enough right now. He only had, what, a handful of games to integrate himself with the group. We tried to develop chemistry. We tried with Krejci at first and then moved him around a little bit.
"So that would be an interesting one. Say it's Jack, say it's Bjork or whoever that takes off, and Ondrej's not ready, and they've strung together five, six, seven games, played a round, whatever, I'd have to seriously consider making a change to a guy that I've seen more of. But again, those are things that you decide down the road. ... It wouldn't be automatic that I'd put Ondrej in if a young kid was playing really well."
It would be a nice problem for Cassidy, to have Studnicka playing so well that he feels the need to keep him in the lineup. There are still some things Cassidy wants to see from the young forward, though, namely a more consistent willingness to shoot.
"He likes to hang onto it an extra second and look to make a play," Cassidy said, "and sometimes at the NHL level, especially in the playoffs, you have to have more of a shot mentality. That’s something he’ll have to sort through. I think all the young guys have gone through that."
Studnicka, for his part, is just working hard to get better every day and trying to show he can help Krejci and DeBrusk make plays. He knows he still needs to make sure these strong practices translate to strong game performances, but he likes the way things are going so far.
"It’s been really fun to be able to practice with those guys," Studnicka said. "They’re both proven offensive players in the league. David’s been around for a long time and seems to always be in the right spot and do the right things and he makes high-end plays. To be on the other end of those, it’s something special, something I’m not taking for granted. I’m just trying to bring a good work ethic to that line. Jake on the other side obviously has high-end speed, so I’m just trying to keep up with him and show that I can play at the pace he plays at and when the (opportunity) arises to make a play. I’m just trying to contribute to making plays with two good players."
The hope when the Bruins acquired Kase was that he would prove to be the answer on Krejci's right wing that the Bruins have been seeking for a couple years now. Maybe, just maybe, it will be Kase's absence that helped reveal the real answer, though.