This is the first in an intermittent offseason series of articles looking at impending Boston Bruins free agents and whether they will be “staying or going” when it comes time for the B’s to make a decision.
The Case: It’s been a largely successful run for Sean Kuraly as a fourth liner in Boston over the last four seasons.
The 28-year-old was something of a throw-in with the San Jose Sharks’ 2016 first round pick sent to the Boston Bruins in exchange for goaltender Martin Jones back at the 2015 NHL Draft weekend. But he gradually developed into a solid big-bodied bottom-6 center that provided occasional offense, good skating speed and solid two-way play over four full NHL seasons with the Black and Gold.
Kuraly isn’t a bruiser as a fourth liner and he was never going to be much more than that at the NHL level given his offensive limitations, but his skating speed, effort level and clutch play made him a valued piece.
Kuraly averaged seven goals and 22 points from 2018-2020 with a cumulative plus-4 rating and had an impressive four goals and 10 points in the 2019 playoff run to the Stanley Cup Final while teaming with Chris Wagner/Joakim Nordstrom and Noel Acciari. He killed penalties, madly celebrated his occasional goals and generally was a net positive player on the B’s energy line. As such Kuraly is coming off a three-year, $3.825 million contract that paid him an average of $1.275 million during the last three seasons with the Boston Bruins.
Now an unrestricted free agent, Kuraly sure sounded like he was hoping to remain in Boston while speaking with the media for his exit interview on zoom last week.
“I love Boston. I love the city. I love the fans. I think the best part about this whole thing has been.
this group [of players] that we’ve had in this locker room. The teammates I’ve had here, it’s all I’ve known,” said Kuraly. “I’ve only played here. I don’t know anywhere else. This is where I call my home in the NHL. There have been so many, just good guys and great hockey players that I’ve been lucky enough to be teammates with here in that locker room.
“I think that’s the most special thing is the group that’s been put together in that locker room. I’ve learned so many lessons from guys that are still in the locker room now, hockey-wise, and just navigating your way through this league. You’ve got countless guys that have come through, [David] Backes, [Zdeno] Chara, the guys we still have [in] Krejci, Bergeron, Marchand. The list seems to go on and on.”
Unfortunately, Kuraly didn’t have a great final year under contract for Boston this season. He was scratched at points and looked like his tank was on empty at the important end to the year for the Black and Gold. Kuraly finished with four goals and nine points along with a minus-10 in 47 regular season games, and then tossed up a goose egg along with a minus-3 rating during 11 games in the playoffs.
Not only that, but he was pushed off the fourth line center spot by the time the playoffs rolled around. The B’s traded for Buffalo center Curtis Lazar at the NHL trade deadline and he was an immediate, impactful upgrade over Kuraly when inserted into the lineup.
Lazar is already under contract for next season, giving the Bruins a ready-made Kuraly replacement while fully aware they have to revamp a fourth line that didn’t cut it during the playoffs. The need for a bottom-6 upgrade was clear in the second round series vs. the Islanders when they were going up against the NHL’s best fourth line in Cal Clutterbuck, Casey Cizikas and Matt Martin.
“We have some areas of depth that we’d like to continue to address. It showed up through the Islanders series, where we got dinged up and ran into some injuries,” said Boston Bruins GM Don Sweeney. “I think the depth of the Islanders roster and their scoring ability showed up, and we just didn’t get it done to the level we needed to. Otherwise, we’d still be playing.
“So, we have to acknowledge the shortcomings, both at a player level and at a management level in terms of the roster composition, as you pointed out. We have to target some areas and expect some improvement in some players that they would admit, and did admit, they fell short in. We’ve been a very competitive team and we put ourselves in a position to compete at the Stanley Cup level. And we’ve just fallen short. That’s where we want to do better.”
Given that youngsters like Trent Frederic, Karson Kuhlman, Anton Blidh and Jack Studnicka are pushing from the AHL level, there are going to be available, affordable bottom-6 options for the Bruins next season. It’s fair to assume there is going to be a notable amount of turnover on a B’s energy line that underachieved last season. With Kuraly due for a raise based on his UFA status and the numbers he’s posted over the last few years, that spells trouble for his long-term future in Black and Gold after a solid stint here.
Staying or Going: Going. Kuraly is a UFA due for a raise while coming off a down year, and his fourth line really struggled at points this past season, including most importantly the playoffs. Perhaps, if things work out well for him, the Ohio-born Kuraly may end up going home to Columbus as a homegrown player for the Blue Jackets. It would be stunning, however, if he winds up sticking around with the Bruins.