EDMONTON, Alberta — Bruce Cassidy doesn’t like to ask too much of Karson Kuhlman at this stage of his career. Appearing in just his 32nd career NHL game on Wednesday night, the 24-year-old is a complementary player slotted a bit too high in the lineup.
Which means that, five days from the trade deadline, Kuhlman’s tenure as the Bruins’ No. 2 right wing is likely near its end.
The Bruins are likely to get a replacement for Kuhlman, who has a 1-4—5 line in 21 games this season. He is an energetic forechecker with good speed, intelligence, and pluck. But he is not the kind of proven finisher needed to play alongside David Krejci and Jake DeBrusk.
Kuhlman is developing. Against the Rangers last Sunday, for example, Cassidy noted how Kuhlman made a few plays from the wall, had a good look in tight, and could have been a little more patient on a few other touches.
“We don’t want to get him away from his roots,” Cassidy said. “He’s a straight-line player, chip and chase . . . that’s why he’s up there helping them. We’re OK with that.”
If Cassidy needs more offense, he’ll move Charlie Coyle or Anders Bjork up for a few shifts. Kuhlman, to his credit, keeps his motor running when that happens, or the Bruins go on special teams (he isn’t involved there).
“There’s a lot of positives there,” Cassidy said. “We’ll keep working on the parts that go into being a top-six player. We don’t want to rush him or put the expectation too high. That’s not fair to the player or to us.”
Cassidy has used a similar approach with DeBrusk, 23. He is nearly at top-six trust: the point where Cassidy can send him over the boards without worrying who is on the other side of the ice. A bit behind the pace of last year’s 27-goal season, the dynamic DeBrusk (18-16—34 in 56 games) can pop off for a pair of goals here and there. If he’s not scoring, his game doesn’t suffer.
The Bruins were looking for more pop from the young wingers on their third line, currently being driven by Coyle (five goals in his last eight games) at center. Danton Heinen, 24, has one assist in five games since his three-game layoff as a healthy scratch. He hasn’t scored in 13 games. Bjork, 23, has a modest 9-9—18 line in 53 games, and no goals in his last eight.
Zdeno Chara hasn’t registered a point in his last 26 games. It is the longest drought of his 22-year career.
His lack of offense is not a concern for the Bruins, who have Charlie McAvoy wheeling and dealing next to him. Even as Chara nears his 43rd birthday (March 18), he still gets tapped for shutdown duty. With Connor McDavid injured Wednesday, Chara’s role was to smother Edmonton’s other superstar, Leon Draisaitl.
“He loves it, relishes it, and is extremely [ticked] if he doesn’t get that matchup, trust me,” Cassidy said. “That’s his bread and butter.
“He wants to make plays with the puck and still be considered a full two-way guy, but I think he understands that his biggest value to the team is, tonight for example, can he keep Draisaitl off the board? Can he frustrate him?”
McAvoy knows his role is to transport or dish pucks out of the defensive zone. Chara concentrates on the Bruins’ half of the ice. It works.
McAvoy’s development as an all-around force is a major reason the Bruins’ No. 1 pair entered Wednesday having allowed 21 goals at five on five, ranking third-fewest of the 20 highest-usage defense pairs in the league (approximately 575 minutes or more at five on five). The Bruins have scored 30 goals with Chara-McAvoy on the ice, eighth-most of that group.
Chara’s endurance remains remarkable. Among the handful of players who have played in the league past age 41, only Chara and Chris Chelios (Detroit, 2003-04) averaged 21 or more minutes per game in a season.
Entering the game, it’s unclear who had bragging rights between pals Draisaitl and David Pastrnak.
Their teams were first place in their respective divisions. Draisaitl (34-61—95 in 59 games) was 13 points ahead of Pastrnak (42-40—82) in the scoring race. Pastrnak was one goal behind the Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews for the Rocket Richard Trophy.
“He’s not going to have any problems getting to 50,” Draisaitl said of Pastrnak Tuesday. “It seems like he scores every game, and if he misses a game it’s two or three the next night.”
Pastrnak, signed for $6.667 million a season through 2023, and Draisaitl ($8.5 million per year through 2025) inked their second NHL deals within three weeks of each other in late summer, 2017. They work out together in Prague in the summer.
“We became close friends,” said Pastrnak, drafted 25th overall in 2014, after Draisaitl went third to the Oilers. “I’m really happy for him. He’s having a great season. Before we signed these contracts, we were hanging out a lot.”
Sportsnet commentator Louie DeBrusk got to interview his son, Jake, on the ice before the game. The elder DeBrusk asked the player he addressed as “kiddo” what it was like to be home in Edmonton for a few days. The response: “It’s nice to see the friends and family. Kind of get sick of hearing my dad’s hunting stories.” It may have been the first benchside interview that ended with, “Love you, Dad.”
Matt Porter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.