The Bruins made it clear to Sean Kuraly: they trust him, and he is part of the plan.
Rather than travel the rocky path to the uncomfortable land of salary arbitration, the club offered the 25-year-old center a three-year deal worth $1.275 million a season. Barring any trades — or the 6-foot-2-inch, 209-pound forward outplaying his projection — Kuraly is now locked in as one of Boston’s bottom-six forwards through the end of Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand’s primes, and the beginning of David Pastrnak’s and Charlie McAvoy’s.
“To have three years with this group is something that I definitely wanted to be a part of,” Kuraly said, “with the core they’ve got around for a while and so many young players.”
As a restricted free agent, Kuraly came to Boston in 2015 with a first-round pick in 2016 for netminder Martin Jones, who has become a No. 1 in San Jose’s Shark Tank. The Bruins used the choice, 29th overall, to select Wisconsin-bound center Trent Frederic. It was a deal that worked for both sides.
Kuraly, who participated in five summer development camps with San Jose, signed a two-year rookie deal in 2016 worth $1.85 million. After an eight-game stint two years ago, he earned coach Bruce Cassidy’s trust last season.
He played in 75 games, scoring 14 points (six goals, eight assists). Along with Noel Acciari and Tim Schaller (who signed with Vancouver), he was part of one of the better fourth-line units in the league. On many nights, the trio breathed down the necks of opposing defensemen and kept the puck far away from Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask.
“I think it’s been, for both sides, been a good fit,” said Kuraly, who, incidentally, is the lone remaining Miami of Ohio player from Boston’s recent collection (Austin Czarnik, Reilly Smith and Carter Camper have moved on). “What I naturally bring to the table is kind of the direction they’re going, and I’ve been encouraged from day one to play to my strengths.”
Kuraly represents quality depth for Boston, a valuable commodity. Should he add more skill to his game, he could fill one of the club’s primary holes. Third-line center Riley Nash, a bargain last year, is off to Columbus.
Nash, who made $900,000 in his final year as a Bruin, blew away his prior offensive marks with a 15-26–41 line, part of that coming from his capable stint replacing an injured Bergeron between Marchand and Pastrnak. The Jackets will pay him $2.75 million a year through 2021.
Ryan Donato, still a rookie after his 12-game run last season, likely will earn a long look in Nash’s place. His offensive gifts (5 goals, 4 assists) could make it an easy call. Management wants to see if 21-and-under prospects Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, Frederic and Jack Studnicka can assert themselves. New addition Chris Wagner, formerly of the Islanders and Ducks, has filled in as a third-line center, but it is more likely he’ll be on Boston’s fourth line.
Kuraly’s experience and production — however brief and minimal — could give him an edge over the kids and Wagner, 27. If tapped, can Kuraly reach another level?
“I figured there would be questions, and 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.”
Kuraly was a fifth-round pick (133rd overall) by San Jose in 2011, a year before he enrolled for a four-year run at Miami of Ohio. The product of Dublin, Ohio was not a high-level offensive threat for the RedHawks (career high: 29 points, twice achieved, in 38- and 40-game seasons), nor was he a major producer in Providence (14-12–26 in 54 games in 2016-17). But he was quick, powerful and had a positive effect on shot differentials in his first full year in Boston.
His heavy, responsible game also lends itself to penalty killing. The departures of Nash and Schaller leave Kuraly believing he “obviously, possibly” could step in.
“It’s not something I’m expecting or think I’ve earned,” he said. “I’m going to go in and take the minutes they give me initially and do the best I can. If they give me more, that will be great.
“I think last year helped and gave me some experience where I feel a little bit better about increasing some role and some minutes,” he said. “A player would be lying to you if he said they didn’t want to help more and do more for the team, so those are my goals.”
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The Bruins also announced the signing of Swedish grinder Anton Blidh to a one-year, two-way deal costing $625,000 in NHL bucks. Blidh’s physical style was a hit in Providence, where he notched 26 points in 71 games. He had 19 games of action two years ago and one last year with the big club.