On a whim Friday, the Bruins tried on a dusty, forgotten spring jacket. Not only was it slimming and surprisingly fashionable, they found a wrinkled $100 bill in the front pocket.
That’s how they must have felt after watching Ondrej Kase step on the ice. The long-lost right winger, out of commission nearly four months, could be found money for a club that looks deep enough to make a long playoff run.
Kase took his first twirl with his teammates since Jan. 16, when a bump from New Jersey’s Miles Wood sent him woozily off the ice and into concussion protocol. It was the fourth documented concussion for the Czech product, who did not arrive here from Anaheim with a “handle with care” label, but was considered to be damaged goods when the Bruins shipped a first-round pick, prospect Axel Andersson, and David Backes to the Ducks in Feb. 2020.
Kase, 25, has talent (20 goals and 38 points in 66 games as a sophomore in 2017-18), willingness. and wheels. But he has not gone the distance in any of his five NHL seasons. He recorded four assists in 11 playoff games last year, after getting into six before the March COVID-19 pause. He suited up for the first two of this year, before the head knock in Newark.
Fourteen-plus months into his relationship with the player, coach Bruce Cassidy still doesn’t quite know what Kase is all about. He hasn’t been able to say with certainty what he could bring this season. But he might find out in the playoffs.
“There’s a chance,” Cassidy said, noting that Friday’s session was his first time taking contact in months. “It wasn’t a full-blown, middle-of-the-year practice, but there was some jostling out there, some battling, so let’s see how he feels (Saturday).”
Kase could return to the lineup Monday (against the Islanders) or Tuesday (at Washington). That will depend on his health, and the Bruins’ needs.
Cassidy has no reason to tinker with the No. 2 line of Taylor Hall, David Krejci, and Craig Smith, which has been burning rubber since Hall high-tailed it out of Buffalo on April 12. In 14 games since, Krejci (6-11—17) has been electric. Hall (6-6—12) “looks like he’s been reborn,” in the words of fellow ex-Sabre Curtis Lazar.
“Paul Coffey skated like that,” Cassidy said of Hall’s effortless-looking, long-striding power, comparing him to a Hall of Fame defenseman from the 1980s and ’90s. For the Hall-Krejci combo, Smith (5-5—10) has been a high-RPM third wheel.
Cassidy also expressed his intrigue with the heavy, puck-possessing No. 3 unit of Nick Ritchie, Sean Kuraly, and Charlie Coyle, which was broken up in Thursday’s win over the Rangers because of Coyle’s upper-body injury. Coyle is not expected to be out long.
Depending on Kase’s health, the Bruins could deploy a gritty, offense-minded No. 4 line in the postseason, with Jake DeBrusk and Kase as the wingers for Lazar. That line’s skating ability would match up well against the bottom-six units of potential opponents from Washington, Pittsburgh, or Long Island.
Trent Frederic, Chris Wagner, Karson Kuhlman, and Anton Blidh would also stand at the ready.
“We don’t know with Ondrej yet,” Cassidy said. “He may go into a spot where if we’re resting a guy or our playoff seed is determined. That will factor into it down the road. By Monday and Tuesday, we’ll have much more clarity. Pittsburgh’s season will be done. Washington will have one game left. That will determine where he plays as well. I really can’t answer that until Charlie [Coyle] gets cleared to get back in the lineup.
“We would like to see [Kase], if he does get cleared. It’s been a long time. A lot of catching up to do. It’s still nice to know what is available to you should we need to put him in the lineup in the playoffs at some point.”
Backes, signed to a five-year, $30 million contract in 2016, stands as one of general manager Don Sweeney’s swings and misses.
The pinnacle of his tenure in Boston was a 38-point debut season, after which the power forward’s game sharply declined because of injuries, age, wear, and tear. He was never the same after Tampa’s J.T. Miller flattened him in the 2018 playoffs. Backes’s last two years here were trying, rife with healthy scratches, including Games 1, 2, 5, 6, and 7 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final against St. Louis.
But the former Blues captain and Team USA standout will be remembered fondly in Camp Spoked-B.
“He was a popular guy with his teammates,” Cassidy said of the 37-year-old, who likely played his final game Wednesday with the Ducks. “Certainly a guy who helped the team win much more than we lost.”