Blue Jackets’ 4th Line in Good Hands with Kuraly Moving Forward

For the Columbus Blue Jackets, being in a retool means there’s uncertainty abound. How high will this year’s draft picks be? Who will step up to lead the next core? Who should be kept and who should be dealt to bring in more assets?

One thing the Blue Jackets shouldn’t be uncertain about is the future of the fourth line, because it will be in good hands with the personnel already on board.

Kuraly Leads the Way

A good fourth-line centreman is worth paying a little more for, because they can bring a good team from a contender to a champion. We’ll call it the Marcus Kruger model. Kruger was the epitome of an underappreciated player for the value he brought to two Stanley Cup champion teams in Chicago in 2013 and 2015.

The role focused on defense first, and had to be filled with someone who wasn’t afraid to go into the dirty areas for a puck battle. I don’t know how many times Kruger got physically destroyed making a play in a puck battle along the boards, but every time the puck went into the corners he still went back in every time. He was a go-to guy as an excellent penalty killer, and could even chip in with the odd goal when it really mattered.

Sean Kuraly Columbus Blue Jackets
Sean Kuraly will keep the Blue Jackets’ bottom-six in check. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Sean Kuraly fits the Kruger mold, and then some. For example, Kuraly plays a high-end defensive game, and is a mainstay on the Blue Jackets’ penalty kill. Where he exceeds Kruger is his level of physicality and strong leadership presence. When Kuraly made his way home to Columbus, Zach Werenski mentioned how he was billed as another Boone Jenner. The similarities are apparent — especially in Jenner’s lengthy absence — and the leadership component is a strong part in that similarity.

Related: Blue Jackets’ Sean Kuraly Comes Home to Columbus

Since leaving the Boston Bruins for the Blue Jackets in free agency, he has taken his game to the next level. He has been a player capable of stepping up onto the third line for an extended time, should the occasion call for it. Kuraly’s offensive game has also seen improvements this year, besting his career high of eight goals with 14 and hitting 30 points for the first time through 74 games. He has been reliable as a player who has been able to bring energy or a big goal to the lineup when a spark is needed.

If someone were looking for a captain for the bottom-six of the forward corps, Kuraly would be my choice. He brings playoff experience from his time with the Bruins, reliability, consistency, and so many intangible leadership qualities. He’s a great hand to steer the bottom of the lineup moving forward.

Robinson Makes the Dynamic Duo

Every Batman needs a Robin(son), right? The perfect wingman for Kuraly has been Eric Robinson. He brings so many great qualities that teams check off on their list in looking for in an energy player: Size? Speed? Tenacity? Great defensive instincts? Check, check, check, and check.

Robinson took the underdog path to the NHL. After going undrafted, he spent four years grinding out a decent collegiate career at Princeton University, during which he captained the team to a conference championship as well as a Frozen Four appearance. When he signed after his senior year, general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said he brought, “a very reliable two-way game and brings the type of character and leadership we value as an organization.”

He has indeed brought that character to the Blue Jackets’ lineup. Robinson spent a couple seasons bouncing between the minors and Columbus before sticking in the 2019-20 season, and has been indispensable since. So much so, in fact, that Kekalainen signed him to a two-year extension on the first day that he possibly could when the window opened last summer.

Eric Robinson Columbus Blue Jackets
Eric Robinson, Columbus Blue Jackets (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

One of the key things about Robinson is that he knows his role and plays it well. He’s not the guy to try and dangle around Roman Josi. He’s got a simpler, straight-to-the-point style that is effective. He has some chemistry with Kuraly, and the two enjoy playing with each other, which always helps.

“I really like playing [with Robinson]. He’s been a guy that when I know I’m playing with him it’s kind of a comforting thing. He’s been good all year and someone I really enjoy playing with. He’s got a lot of assets. He’s got speed. He can shoot. He’s simple. He’s consistent and plays hard every night. So it’s been fun to play with him.”

Sean Kuraly said of Eric Robinson following a 2-1 loss to the LA Kings

When the two are on the ice together, the Blue Jackets’ game seems to speed up. The two are aggressive on the puck with their forechecking and backchecking being done with a little more gusto than other lines. They bring energy to the lineup, along with a consistent defensive responsibility that has helped them become one of the team’s premier penalty-killing duos.

It Doesn’t Matter Who Else is With Them

While Kuraly and Robinson have been a dynamic duo, they are still auditioning for someone to turn them into a terrific trio. Ohio product Carson Meyer’s name has been in that third spot lately, and looking pretty good doing it — with three points in his last five games.

Trey Fix-Wolansky Columbus Blue Jackets
Trey Fix-Wolansky has been one of many players to round out the fourth line this season. (Photo by Adam Lacy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Now, whether Meyer sticks in that slot remains to be seen. However, even if it doesn’t work out for him, at this point it really doesn’t matter who is playing there. Kuraly and Robinson have a way of making the game a little easier for anyone beside them.

“They make the game pretty easy because they’re always in the right spots. They’re always working and I know if I get the puck, they’re supporting me with speed. They do a good job of making the game easy for whoever their right winger is.”

Carson Meyer said of Kuraly and Robinson

Others who have been in that slot are Trey Fix-Wolansky, Emil Bemstrom, Justin Danforth, and even Yegor Chinakhov. None of those players looked bad in that slot – with Danforth and Meyer looking the best in my opinion. The singer Meat Loaf famously said two out of three ain’t bad, and in this case, you’ve got two players out of three on that line who are guaranteed to excel. You could put any skater in the third slot, and any inadequacies would be evened out by the other two pieces.

It’s in Good Hands

Kuraly and Robinson have a firm grasp on the bottom line of the Blue Jackets’ lineup. What’s key to note is that just because someone is on the fourth line doesn’t mean they’re a fringe NHL player. It doesn’t even mean the players on it will play the least amount of minutes among forwards, considering Kuraly routinely plays as many minutes as a second-line forward.

What it does mean is that those players play a specific role, and let’s be clear, fourth lines play a key role in today’s NHL. The teams that understand role and find players to suit it are the ones who become Stanley Cup Champions. As for the Blue Jackets’ fourth line, it’s in excellent hands with Kuraly and Robinson as they move into their next era.

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