The Boston Bruins’ top two forward lines are finally set and firing on all cylinders just in time for the 2021 Playoffs, where they will face the formidable Washington Capitals in a first-round matchup. Head coach Bruce Cassidy can now turn his focus to the bottom-six to put together the most optimal combination of players. This is an opportunity that hasn’t been afforded to the Bruins in a long time; lineup decisions in the past usually hinged on which player could play on David Krejci’s right-wing, or choosing between “grit” and “skill” on any given night. Now, the Bruins have options that won’t require them to make these sacrifices and instead have a chance to discover what the roster is capable of at its best.
The players that Cassidy chooses and what positions they play on offense will determine the team’s level of success. Some players play better together than others, and some players need to be in certain positions to perform at their best. The most optimal lineup might be dependant on the opponent, but the challenge at hand is finding out which players will fill out the bottom-six against the Capitals and where each player will slot in.
The Bruins have five bottom-six forwards whose natural side is on the right: Ondrej Kase, Karson Kuhlman, and Chris Wagner, who are right-wingers, and Charlie Coyle and Curtis Lazar, who are right-shot centers. The unknown variable is Kase, who played his first game since Jan. 16 on Monday, only to leave halfway through due to an unspecified upper-body injury. Cassidy told the media that it was a conditioning issue unrelated to his concussion history, which offers some hope that his absence will not last long. I have written about how valuable Kase can be on offense and how he rounds out the bottom-six; if he is healthy and available, the Bruins should have him as a lock on either the third or fourth-line right-wing.
Ondrej Kase did not necessarily suffer another injury or a flareup, per Bruce Cassidy. Kase did not feel fully comfortable with his conditioning.— Fluto Shinzawa (@FlutoShinzawa) May 11, 2021
At some point, Cassidy might also have to choose between Karson Kuhlman and Chris Wagner. Kuhlman is an interesting wild card since he has played only 20 games this season, mostly out of necessity rather than choice; however, he brought fast-paced energy and impressive playmaking ability that would be valuable in the playoffs. In a sustained role, he could develop chemistry with his linemates and blossom in the bottom-six.
Wagner, on the other hand, has an advantage over Kuhlman due to his extended playing time; he was one-third of the memorable fourth line from their 2019 Playoff run that included Sean Kuraly and ex-teammate Joakim Nordstrom. However, his production this season has amounted to a meager 5 points in 41 games, and it often looked like he was dragging down his line, which is why he’s been a healthy scratch multiple times this season.
In truth, this is probably a better representation of Wagner’s offensive capabilities than the 12 goals he scored in his first season as a Bruin. There is nothing spectacular about his game that makes up for his lack of production; he doesn’t have Kuhlman’s speed or Kase’s forechecking. Still, it might be valuable to have a veteran presence in the lineup for the playoffs, which makes choosing between him and Kuhlman even tougher.
Cassidy’s options for the two bottom-six left-wing slots consist of Jake DeBrusk, Nick Ritchie, Trent Frederic, and Kuraly, all of whom are capable of making an impact. DeBrusk, despite his down season, looks like he may be gaining his good vibes from previous seasons back, and he has the ability to get hot in the playoffs. 7th Player Award winner Nick Ritchie has been a net-front machine with valuable playmaking skills and can be a serious physical force when needed. These two round out the left side of the bottom-six well and, when we look at the left-wing positions in isolation, would seem to be the most fitting pairing for the playoffs.
However, Frederic has made a case for himself, thanks to his fearlessness in standing up to Washington bully Tom Wilson. He is not afraid to push back when the other team gets nasty, which affords his high-profile teammates some armor against being targetted in these situations. That said, he likely wouldn’t get a shot in the lineup otherwise; his 5 points in 41 games this season are serviceable for a player of his age, but definitely not what you’d want for optimal production. Cassidy will need to decide if he is willing to sacrifice some offense for the “armor” against the Capitals that Frederic provides.
Most of these players are flexible enough to play other positions; DeBrusk has spent significant time on the right-wing, while Kuraly has alternated between left-wing and center. Frederic may also find a spot somewhere else in the lineup if Cassidy decides to give him a chance. Overall, Boston is in good shape on the left-wing; what is still to be determined is where each player will be placed.
X-Factors and Possible Combinations
Coyle versus Kuraly at Center
With Lazar centering the fourth line, one of Coyle and Kuraly will have to move to their respective wing. Cassidy will therefore have to decide which player he wants playing center more. If he chooses to keep Kuraly at center and move Coyle to the right-wing, the bottom-six lineup could look like this:
L3: Ritchie – Kuraly – Coyle
L4: DeBrusk – Lazar – Kase
The other option here is to switch Ritchie and DeBrusk. This combination hasn’t been tested, and we’ve yet to see DeBrusk on a line with Kuraly and Coyle. On the other hand, Ritchie and Kase have experience playing together from their years on the Anaheim Ducks, which means some of their old chemistry could be sparked.
Should Cassidy decide that he wants Coyle at center, however, this would force a left-winger to play on the right. The third line could consist of Ritchie, Coyle, and Kase, while the fourth line would be one of these two combinations:
DeBrusk – Lazar – Kuraly
Kuraly – Lazar – DeBrusk
Kuraly has very little experience as a right-wing, and I’ve written about how DeBrusk loses some of his punch when he plays on his off-wing, so these options aren’t as appealing. The other possibility would be to take Kuraly or DeBrusk out of the lineup entirely and choose to slot in Kuhlman, Wagner, or Frederic, but this would take away significant firepower. Overall, having Coyle move to right-wing and keeping Kuraly at center provides a much stronger lineup.
Kase’s presence in this lineup is not only valuable for his skill but also for the stability he brings to the right-wing. It’s still unknown whether he’ll be available for the start of the playoffs and if he’ll be able to sustain that availability. If all goes well, and he settles into the lineup without injury concerns, the combinations I proposed above would be the best fit. However, Cassidy must have a plan B if Kase is injured.
The most intuitive replacement for Kase would be either Kuhlman or Wagner. There could also be some line blending with a left-winger like DeBrusk or Kuraly getting moved to the right to make up for the loss of Kase’s skill on the right-wing. In either scenario, it would be a tough blow for the Bruins to lose him.
As I mentioned, the Capitals’ style of play will force Cassidy to consider using a player like Frederic, whose presence could distract opponents from targeting the Bruins’ star players. Frederic has the power to sway players like Wilson and Alex Ovechkin, so it might be useful having him on the ice.
In the event that Kase doesn’t play, Frederic’s chances of slotting in are even higher. Here’s what that could look like with him on his natural side as a left-winger:
L3: Ritchie – Kuraly – Coyle
L4: Frederic – Lazar – DeBrusk
If Cassidy is willing to play Frederic on his off-wing, then he and DeBrusk could be switched. Another possibility, albeit unlikely, would be to return to the third line of Ritchie, Coyle, and DeBrusk and form a fourth line of Kuraly, Lazar, and Frederic; however, this third line combo hasn’t been very productive in its time together, which makes it an unappealing choice for the playoffs. Going with the lineup above might be a better option in this case, especially since we’ve seen it used with some promising success already.
Chemistry and Identity Are Key
Regardless of which lineup Cassidy decides to go with, he must allow the players to find their rhythm. Luckily, many of them have already spent significant minutes together this season or in years past and hopefully won’t need long to build chemistry in the high-stakes playoffs.
The most important piece of this puzzle is for these lines to form an identity. We know what a strong identity line can look like, most notably in the Bruins’ fourth lines of the past; meanwhile, a weak identity can sink a line that otherwise has a lot of combined talent. Playing styles and skillsets contribute to this intangible factor, but for the most part, we simply have to wait and see which players can form something greater than the sum of its parts. In this case, perhaps only Cassidy and the players will recognize it, but we can hope that it manifests in time for the Bruins to pull out a series win against the Capitals.