Six legit contenders in Bruins' third-line center battle

Sara Civian
July 18, 2018 - 12:21 pm

Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports

As expected as Riley Nash’s departure was, it still stung.

He signed a three-year, $8.25 million contract with the Blue Jackets during free agency, leaving the Bruins with a very specific role to replace.

Nash had a career 15-26--41 season in 76 games.

Cool.

Replacing him is more about the time he took a Torey Krug slapshot to the ear and nonchalantly revealed weeks later that his ear was “kinda hanging on for dear life,” and he was “just happy to have it.” It’s about the time he was forced to take on the daunting task of replacing Patrice Bergeron, and he stepped up with 12 points and nine wins in those 13 games.

The Bruins have indicated the new third-line center is probably an internal option. Can anyone emerge this season as the new Nash -- a defensively responsible “guy who steps up”?

Here’s a look at what the Bruins are working with, from least likely to most likely:

Trent Frederic

Frederic’s name has been popping up in the third-line center conversation in the same breath as Jack Studnicka and Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson. This isn’t a knock on his high potential, but I don’t think that makes sense.

His five goals in seven games at last year’s WJC were intriguing, so those curious about him probably looked at his stats from Wisconsin and thought they were fine -- 17 goals and 15 assists in 36 games. As someone obsessed with Big Ten hockey, I actually watched most of those games. Though Wisconsin struggled last season (14-19-4), his overall minus-9 rating is a pretty fair representation of the work he needs to do. That consistent defensive responsibility is one of the most urgent traits the Bruins need to replace post-Nash.

He’s not absolutely reckless in his own zone, and his defensive highlights show his high eventual upside in that aspect. But that doesn’t mean he should be expected to jump into a Cup contending center role and excel RIGHT now -- especially when he had been playing in a league not as defensively developed as Hockey East or the NCHC. Speaking of which, the Bruins rarely dabble in Big Ten recruiting. They're going to want to take a very close look at him before they make any drastic decisions, and I have heard that's part of the reason he's not back at Wisconsin right now.

The 6-foot-2, 203 pound 20-year-old had a promising start in Providence with five goals, three assists, and a plus-three rating through 13 games. That should be considered the start of a foundation he needs to build before the NHL. Multiple sources that have closely worked with him and played against him agree he's not ready for this role. 

Jack Studnicka

It’s Boston or bust for Studnicka, who at 19 years old is too young to report to Providence for a full season under NHL/CHL player agreement. He was 27th in the OHL scoring last season with 22 goals, 50 assists, and 72 points in 66 games, then he finished it off with a point-per-game transition to the AHL (one goal, four assists).

The Bruins bring him up relatively often compared to other players, which doesn’t necessarily mean anything...but kinda means something, right?

At development camp director of player development Jamie Langenbrunner spoke about the 2017 second-round pick’s NHL projection:

“I think that’s a lofty goal for him as a 19-year-old, not a lot of 19 year olds play in the National Hockey League. It’s something – I wouldn’t put it past him, he’s a determined kid. I think if you would have asked him last September, his goal was to make the team also. He wants to do that, that’s great. We’re not going to take that away from him. If he’s able to push and take that job, then great. I think (Don Sweeney’s) spoken about that quite regularly. Whoever’s ready is going to get the job.”

He’s apparently been putting in serious work this summer, and has already added some strength to his ~ 6-foot-1, 171 pound frame. He strikes me as the hard-working, two-way center the Bruins need in Nash’s replacement -- I just don’t know if he’s ready to take it all on yet. He seems like he’s right on the cusp of his development where the Bruins adding him to the roster is just the slightest bit premature.

With all these other options, don’t risk his development unless he’s so good you can’t ignore him.

Ryan Donato

Just let the man score…

With Rick Nash’s future in question, and assuming the Bruins don’t trade for a top-six forward anytime soon...come on.

Just put Donato on a wing and let that shot fly.

Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson

A lot of these positional battle decisions really have nothing to do with training camp, but Karlsson’s performance this fall is something to keep your eye on.

The prized 21-year-old Boston University product’s near-inevitable path to the NHL was stalled when the sustained a concussion in Providence. All things considered he had a strong 2017-18 showing with 15-17--32 and a plus-three in 58 games played.

Folks have been pretty impatient with him (in my humble opinion). Now is his chance to live up to those expectations, though. Of all the prospects in the third-line center battle, he’s had the most development and a season in the system under his belt. He excels in all three zones and doesn’t lose his cool -- he’s the most Nash-esque prospect on this list and it’s not particularly close.

If he crushes training camp I see this actually happening.

Chris Wagner

One of the Bruins’ free agency depth acquisitions, Wagner seems like a shoe-in for the Tim Schaller-sized void in the fourth line. I just put him in here because he’s versatile, and depending on how Bruce Cassidy shuffles the top six, Wagner could shimmy into a third-line center role if he must.

It makes more sense for the Walpole, Ma. native -- who was third in the league with 253 hits last season -- to assume a Bruins fan-friendly grind line role and pave the way for…

Sean Kuraly

Kuraly’s new contract garnered some criticism, for sure. A fourth-liner signed for three years? An AAV of $1.275 million?

A little extreme if the Bruins wanted him to stay on the fourth line.

He scored six goals and eight assists for 14 points in 75 games last season. His role wasn’t exactly to churn out points, but Kuraly has risen up to that occasion in the playoffs, with four goals and 2 assists and a plus-five through 16 career playoff games.

The contract was somewhat a vote of confidence that Kuraly could toss his name into the third-line conversation. The 6-foot-2, 213-pound 25-year-old is hard to play against, and can use his size to his advantage.

"We have some young players that certainly want that slot, and we have a couple of guys internally that I think can move up and play that slot," general manager Don Sweeney said July 1. "Sean Kuraly is certainly a player that wants to have a bigger role.”

As boring as an internal search for a third-line solution is in the Summer of Tavares, I don’t hate these options.

If, right now, you forced me to pick the opening night third-line center, I’d call you crazy because it’s July 18. Then I’d say give Forsbacka-Karlsson a chance to be a training camp hero, and if all else fails the Bruins obviously trust Kuraly.

With depth like Wagner and Joakim Nordstrom to rely on and dozens of chances to get it right before the trade deadline, why not play around with the lines a bit?

Cassidy has proved he isn’t afraid to do that. Whoever ends up on that opening spot roster will know the internal battle for the position is far from over.

Related content:

Should the Bruins make any more moves this offseason?

Four Bruins prospects who might actually make the NHL

 

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