Bruins Reaping Benefits of Internal Competition

On Dec. 30, Boston Bruins forward Jake DeBrusk was noticeably absent from a large part of the first period of a game against the Buffalo Sabres. When he returned to the ice in the next period, he proceeded to score two goals in less than 20 seconds and helped the team to a 3-2 victory.

After the game, it was revealed that it had been a coach’s decision that kept DeBrusk from action. The message had been a simple one, which was drilled into the entire team during the ensuing intermission. In a nutshell, head coach Bruce Cassidy told his players that they should recognize what an honor it is to wear the Spoked B. He stressed that each and every man in the room needed to earn his place in the storied history of the Original Six franchise.

DeBrusk took that message to heart and has played consistently better since that brief in-game benching. In the time that has followed, Cassidy has held true to that method of lighting a fire under his team, especially the younger contingent of Bruins.

Moving Pieces

In addition, the coach added another layer of internal competition to the mix. A few prospects were called up from the team’s American Hockey League affiliate in Providence just before the recent All-Star break, namely Karson Kuhlman, Anton Blidh and Jeremy Lauzon. They replaced underperforming veterans Brett Ritchie, Steven Kampfer and David Backes on the roster.

Last weekend, Sean Kuraly, who usually plays fourth-line center and has earned a reputation for providing an enormous spark to the lineup, found himself in the press box as a healthy scratch. Kuraly has struggled to find his game this season, and, as a result, was relegated to spectator status while his teammates defeated the Minnesota Wild.

Sean Kuraly Boston Bruins
Sean Kuraly, Boston Bruins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Kuraly’s benching was announced earlier that day as a coach’s decision. Cassidy said he wanted to see more of a compete factor from a guy who is normally called on to carry some of the team’s toughest loads. Understandably, this may not have sat particularly well with the third-year Bruin, but he certainly seems to have gotten the message.

Kuraly has played in all three of Boston’s games since, and has contributed a goal and an assist and ramped up his shots and hits in his return. The energy is there again. In return, Kuraly has been rewarded with a spot on the left wing of offensive-minded third liners Charlie Coyle and Anders Bjork.

Getting a Shot

Now that Kuraly seems to understand what he needs to do to remain the lineup, it is Danton Heinen’s turn to prove himself. After being forced to sit out four consecutive contests, Heinen returned to the lineup Sunday in Detroit, albeit in a rather unfamiliar fourth-line left-wing spot.

Although Cassidy originally said Heinen was out because he was banged up in the team’s first game back from its break, not much else was said about his absence after that. It is possible that Heinen, who has struggled to produce offensively, was being taught a similar lesson about how a Bruin is expected to play.

Even though he was given another chance in Sunday’s loss to the Detroit Red Wings, it seems Heinen will have to complete with Kuraly to regain a spot on the third line. He did get a few shifts in that more-familiar role but finished the game where he started. Also, Heinen did not log much time on the power play, where he has been a regular presence, in the first period.

Finding an Answer

The latest trick pulled out of Cassidy’s coaching bag marked a welcome change. After starting off the 2019-20 season like gangbusters, thanks in large part to David Pastrnak’s unreal October performance, the Bruins fell into a nearly three-month slump. Wins were hard to come by, and only the lead built up early in the season really kept the team from sinking to dangerous depths in the standings.

David Pastrnak Boston Bruins
Boston Bruins’ David Pastrnak (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

It is tough to say exactly what was wrong with the Bruins in November, December and January. But, it looked like the team needed an attitude adjustment. During that stretch, it was rare to see much more than 10 or 20 minutes of quality hockey and good effort put in across the board. No lead was safe. Everyone just seemed to hit a point in the game where they took their foot off the gas and attempted to coast to the finish.

This mentality was probably also a major contributor to the Bruins’ well-publicized overtime woes. The team has not won a shootout yet this season. Before the break, three-on-three overtime wins were also sparse. So far, that aspect of the game showed some noticeable improvement with the newly invigorated lineup.

Adding to the Mix

Looking ahead, with defenseman Connor Clifton and forward Joakim Nordstrom nearing returns from injury and/or illness, there will be fewer slots available in the lineup than players currently on the roster. As a result, the internal competition that has provided a spark of late could be taken to another level to allow the coaches to decide who will remain in the everyday lineup.

Bruins defenseman Connor Clifton
Bruins defenseman Connor Clifton celebrates (Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports)

It is likely that one or two players currently on the roster will be sent down to Providence when these two are available. In fact, forward Karson Kuhlman and Lauzon, who has served one game of a two-game NHL suspension, were assigned to Providence on Monday. However, it is yet to be seen if those moves are permanent or “paper moves” designed to satisfy league regulations.

Both Lauzon and Kuhlman have played very well in their latest stints with the big club, as has Blidh, who is another candidate to lose his spot. The final decision on how to round out the third and fourth lines, in particular, could come down to which players are able to prove to Cassidy that they want the playing time most.

Whatever Cassidy’s reasons are for taking a more hard-line, earn your spot approach of late, there is no question it is working. The guys who have been benched or scratched have responded well, and the Bruins have won all five games they’ve played since returning to action on Jan. 31.