BRIGHTON, Mass – While the hope was that the Boston Bruins could somehow discover a spot for 22-year-old rookie Jack Studnicka when final NHL rosters were announced this week, the reality is he’s better off starting the year in Providence based on the circumstances.
Certainly, Studnicka played well enough in the preseason to make the team if it were simply based on merit. But there are many more factors, of course, once the business of the NHL gets involved and that’s the case here as Studnicka and Chris Wagner were among the final B’s roster cuts.
The young center finished with two goals and four points, played exceedingly well whether he was with veterans or centering a line of rookie hopefuls and showed a willingness to play the detail-oriented two-way game he’ll need at the NHL level. Studnicka was credited with sticking around Boston and working hard to pack on 15 pounds of strength this summer, and it showed brilliantly on the ice in just about every situation.
But this isn’t fantasy hockey or some eye-rolling fancy stats exercise where a team can just load up on the best players while not giving a care toward specific players filling certain roles on the hockey club. The simple truth is that Studnicka wasn’t going to be any one of the top-3 centers on the Bruins with Patrice Bergeron, Charlie Coyle and Erik Haula healthy and ready to go, and the Bruins didn’t want to stick the youngster on the fourth line.
Furthermore, the Bruins want to develop Studnicka at center this season and will be looking to avoid slotting him on the wing as well.
“We have to decide who gives us the most bang for our buck,” said Boston Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy, prior to the moves being announced on Monday afternoon. “Blidh is a left winger and he hasn’t played a lot of the other spots. The same with [Kuhlman] as a right winger. Wagner has played some center, but not for a while here. That’s where we lose some value with Lazar’s injury not just from the right wing spot, but he also takes a lot of draws and can play center.
“Jack [Studnicka] has the ability to move around, but we tried him on the wing, and we prefer the results in the middle. So there is always both sides of the column that you look at the with the extra guy. And the value of having two ‘D’ versus having two extra forwards when you’re traveling. Having a couple of extra ‘D’ there is often more beneficial than having to fly a guy in there at the last minute. Those are the things we think about, but those things can change on a daily basis too.”
There’s clearly an argument the Bruins could have really shuffled the duck, moved Haula or Coyle to wing and found Studnicka a center spot to start the year if it was a desperate situation. But that’s just as easily done a month into the season if the B’s forward group needs tweaking, and this is not even close to a desperate situation at this point.
The bottom line is that Bergeron is Bergeron and not going anywhere, Coyle looked strong, fast and powerfully healthy in Boston’s final preseason game and Haula was one of their best players in the preseason when the new-look third line got their run. The Bruins have new players in new spots throughout their lineup, and a little consistency to start the season will give the Boston Bruins coaching staff a read on exactly what they have moving forward.
In the meantime, Studnicka will be afforded a top role on the AHL club playing big minutes, starring in all situations and staying ready just in case injuries or ineffectiveness creates a need for the young center. If he gets past any initial disappointment and keeps playing as he did during the preseason, then it’s only a matter of time before he pushes his way to Boston.
Truth be told, this humble hockey writer has some very real questions as to whether Coyle has the offensive goods to be the No. 2 center for the Boston Bruins. Certainly, Coyle’s new linemates believe in him as Taylor Hall made clear this week while looking forward to getting going for the real thing with Coyle and Craig Smith.
“We’ve seen it in practice. It’s a weird rehab [from knee surgery] because there’s an adjustment period that’s mental in just pushing it. But [Coyle] looked great. I really think a lot of him as a player and always have,” said Hall. “When we heard that Krejci wasn’t coming back, I didn’t really think much about it. He wanted to do what he wanted to do and he was obviously a great Bruin, but there are guys that can step up in that hole. I believe that Charlie is that guy.”
But there is every chance that Studnicka is the long-term solution as a David Krejci replacement given his age, his upside and the offensive skills that he’s going to bring to the table along with his 200-foot game. The Bruins haven’t had too many impactful rookies pushing their way into the lineup in the last couple of seasons, and Studnicka has a chance to be a longtime fixture with the Black and Gold.
Certainly, Studnicka is projected to be a 20-goal scorer at the NHL level and a player that can drive a top-6 line, and that’s really never been Coyle’s thing while only topping 20 goals or 50 points once in his NHL career.
Perhaps Hall can elevate his game to his Hart Trophy levels from New Jersey and really drive that line, and all three forwards (Hall, Coyle and Smith) can create a relentless, powerful and fast identity that differs from the cerebral playmaking featured by Krejci. But past hockey history shows that Coyle is probably best suited as a third line center on a deep hockey team that plays with power, speed and the occasional offensive burst.
In this day and age everybody wants quick answers and immediate gratification, and those are the motives behind those fervently pushing for Studnicka to start this season in the NHL. Instead, the Bruins are playing the long game with Studnicka and making certain that he plays every night this season after playing just 31 games last season while bouncing between the AHL and NHL on the taxi squad.
It may be hard to see now, but the Boston Bruins are doing right by Studnicka keeping him in the AHL, and it may very well pay big dividends before the season is out based on just how “NHL ready” he played during the preseason.