By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
While the hockey world sits in a holding pattern waiting for Erik Karlsson to be traded out of Ottawa, here are a few mid-July thoughts:
*Don’t count out Kuraly.
There’s been some blowback to the notion that Sean Kuraly, after re-signing for three years and a $1.275 million AAV, will be in the competition to replace Riley Nash as the third-line center. Obviously the best-case scenario is for one of Boston’s higher-skilled prospect — widely expected to be one of Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson, Trent Frederic or Jack Studnicka — grabs this job and runs with it in the fall.
But the Bruins are trying to create as stiff a competition as they can produce, and ruling out Kuraly would be against their philosophy. Sure the 25-year-old seemed best-suited to a fourth-line role last season and would be a luxury to have as a two-way player on Boston’s bottom line for the long haul, but he’s not too old to improve. No one is saying the Kuraly that played last year could be a third-liner, but a better version of Kuraly could at least be a stopgap if the kids don’t pan out and no other moves are made.
He acknowledged that situation earlier this month:
“I’m going to give it my best shot,” he said. “I’m preparing like I do every single year to play my best hockey, and I look at it like, that’s the first thing that has to happen. So, I’m going to try to play my best hockey and bring as much as I can to the team, and where I’m put in the lineup or where they put me is going to be based off how I play, and how I play is up to me.”
Kuraly had just six goals in 75 games last season but his regular linemates, Tim Schaller and Noel Acciari, scored 12 and 10, respectively. One might expect that playing up in the lineup with higher-end talent Kuraly would get more assists and shoot better than the 4.5 percent he produced last season. A healthy David Backes, cast in a bottom-six role, might be the perfect complement for Kuraly on the right wing as that duo showed in the 2017 playoffs.
Remember the quantum leap Nash’s play took from being a fourth-liner to a third-line center with top-six potential that earned a payday as a UFA before you discount Kuraly as a third-line option.
*It’d be easier to stomach the Bruins having so many questions about their third-line center spot if they had addressed the top-six wing situation. Barring a trade for a player who hasn’t landed on the trade-rumor radar, it looks like Boston is going to cross its fingers and hope its run of success with young players seamlessly fitting into major roles continues. Anders Bjork, Danton Heinen and Ryan Donato are head of the class in this competition. But at some point general manager Don Sweeney is going to have to browse the leftover aisle of the free agent market and bring in more veteran competition — more for the push it’d give the young guys rather than as a fallback option.
There aren’t too many worthwhile names left on the list of available wings but Lee Stempniak or David Booth might have a little left in the tank as a pro tryouts should they not find more stable work before late August.
Again, the idea wouldn’t be to have one of those guys in your top six, or even top nine, on opening night but just make sure no one gets complacent when camp opens.
*Connor Hellebuyck got paid Thursday. The Winnipeg Jets restricted free agent goalie got rewarded for his Vezina finalist season with a six-year contract with an AAV of a little less than $6.2 million. He’s 25 and has had just one season as a No. 1 goaltender.
When the Bruins signed Tuukka Rask to his eight-year, $56 million contract, he was 26 and coming off a run to the Stanley Cup Final. That contract represented the going rate for a No. 1 goaltender and obviously still is.
Enough with this “Rask is overpaid” nonsense, I beg you.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @MattKalman.