It all began on April 21, 2017. That was the date then-Boston Bruins head coach Claude Julien elected to start a relatively unknown young prospect in Game 5 of the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs in place of a struggling Ryan Spooner.
Sean Kuraly found himself on the playoff roster that season because of a spate of injuries. He’d appeared in a previous game in the series, as well. However, on this particular day, he cemented a place in Boston sports lore when he scored the tying goal in the third period and the game winner in overtime to help the Bruins stave off possible elimination.
Although the team was eliminated from the playoffs two days later, Kuraly was still being heralded by the Bruins faithful and making the coaching staff and general manager Don Sweeney feel pretty good about their choice to play him in that game.
Kuraly made the big club once and for all out of training camp in the fall of 2017. He spent the next two seasons showing time and time again that the big-game-player reputation he’d earned in that playoff game was no fluke. He is likely never going to be a 20-goal scorer, but he seems to have an uncanny knack for coming through when it matters most.
For example, last season Kuraly scored the game-winning goal in the last game of 2018 against the Buffalo Sabres and again a few days later against the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2019 Winter Classic at Notre Dame stadium. Although he was not available for the beginning of the 2019 series against the Toronto Maple Leafs because he was recovering from surgery on a broken hand, Kuraly’s return to the lineup late in that first-round series made a huge difference.
Searching for Success
However, more than halfway through the 2019-20 season, Kuraly is struggling to find his game. Although he has already tied his career high with 13 assists, he has scored just three goals so far. There have been flashes of the “one-man-cycle,” energetic force that has made him a fan- and coach-favorite, but those glimpses have been mixed in with turnovers and a minus-3 rating to date.
When the Bruins were desperately searching for wins for most of December, many hoped Kuraly’s big-game heroics would help lift the team out of its doldrums. However, that did not happen.
To be fair, few players on the Bruins not named David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand or Patrice Bergeron contributed much at all in that rough stretch. Now that the team has started getting some secondary scoring, it seems to be playing as a cohesive unit once again.
In fact, the Bruins had strung together three-straight wins before blowing a three-goal lead and losing in bizarre and frustrating fashion in the shootout Monday against the Philadelphia Flyers.
Kuraly and his linemates are certainly not solely to blame for the Bruins up-and-down 2019-20 campaign. However, the team has been able to lean on its stellar fourth line, anchored by Kuraly, in tough times over the previous two seasons. For the most part, this has not been the case this season.
Some of Kuraly’s issues certainly stem from the fact that until recently he rarely played with the same two linemates for more than two or three consecutive games. He has bounced between the fourth and third lines and from center to left wing and back again.
For someone who is used to being the pivot man on a highly successful fourth line, that adjustment may be difficult. Still, when the coaches have looked to him to provide a spark this season, he has failed to do so.
Instead, the Dublin, Ohio native, who will turn 27 on Jan. 20, seems to be overthinking, resulting in mistakes and way too much time spent in the penalty box. In fact, roughly 20% of his 102 career penalty minutes have been logged this season. And it is still just mid-January.
It is hard to say what Kuraly needs to do to get back to the dynamic whirling dervish he’s known for being or what exactly has caused his current issues. However, it might be high time he spent some time watching a game or two from the press box.
Last season, he was scratched for a game against the Maple Leafs just after Thanksgiving. It took a few weeks, but Kuraly seemed to get the message and was contributing regularly by Christmas. Another benching could be just what he needs to get his head straight and look at the game from a fresh perspective.
It’s possible that Kuraly has not built the same chemistry with regular linemates Joakim Nordstrom and Chris Wagner as he did the past two seasons with lines that also included former Bruins Tim Schaller and Noel Acciari.
However, Acciari is now enjoying a career year as a Florida Panther and Schaller is in his second season as a member of the Vancouver Canucks. All the wishful thinking in the world is not going to return them to Boston anytime soon.
Kuraly has played several consecutive games on a fourth line where he is flanked by Joakim Nordstrom and Chris Wagner. Both of those guys were integral parts of a fourth-line wing rotation that also included Acciari last season. By this point, it seems the chemistry should have been re-established.
Head coach Bruce Cassidy likes Kuraly and it’s not hard to see why. Even with his struggles, he continues to give 100 percent effort on every shift. That is something that has quite frankly been missing in other parts of the Bruins lineup this season.
This is probably the reason Cassidy seems reluctant to sit the youngest of his four centers. No matter what the solution though, there is no question something has to be done to get Kuraly back to form before the stretch run and pivotal playoff push.
In addition, the contract extension Kuraly signed with the Bruins in July 2018 runs through the 2020-21 season. After a season that looked like he was a star on the rise, the more recent issues could spell trouble if he plans to remain in the Spoked-B beyond that.