Don’t forget about…Karson Kuhlman

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Over the past decade, Boston Bruins have found success in the undrafted free agent department, especially with signing NCAA players. Whether we’re talking about Torey Krug, Kevan Miller, Frank Vatrano (whose trade to Florida in 2018 netted the pick the B’s used to select Jakub Lauko), or even Austin Czarnik (now with Calgary), the B’s have identified passed-over college players who have gone on to reach the NHL.

A more recent example is former University of Minnesota-Duluth captain Karson Kuhlman, who led the Bulldogs to their first of two consecutive NCAA championships in 2018 and then signed with the B’s shortly thereafter. The 2018 NCAA tournament MVP didn’t dazzle anyone with his numbers, but was, as it turned out, the perfect fit for Boston.

It didn’t take Kuhlman long to see his first NHL action and by the spring of 2019, he was playing a supporting role in helping the B’s get to within one game of a Stanley Cup championship. In 19 regular and playoff games combined, the rookie netted four goals and eight points, not bad for a defensive forward in college whose best season consisted of just six goals and 22 points in 42 games during the 2016-17 campaign.

The Esko, MN native has always impressed with his speed, intelligent two-way game and hyper-competitivene style, going back to his USHL days with the Dubuque Fighting Saints.

After making such a surprising impact (at the very least in terms of timeline), Kuhlman made the 2019-20 Bruins roster out of camp, but fractured his tibia Oct. 19 in a game against Toronto. He missed the next two months and returned to the ice in late December, bouncing between the NHL and AHL with Providence until the NHL season was put on pause.

He still meets our criteria of a prospect, even though he’s seen 36 NHL regular season games in his first two pro seasons, so here’s a quick snapshot of Kuhlman and what B’s fans can expect going forward:

Strengths: Superb skater- explosive, agile and quick. He’s got excellent acceleration and is strong on his skates- able to roll off of checks and maintain his balance. Very good small-area burst. Hockey sense is very good- while not overly creative, he sees the ice and makes good decisions with and without the puck. Tremendous intangibles such as character and leadership packaged up in a relentless work ethic. He’s a superior forechecker who disrupts and creates turnovers with his speed and sheer tenacity- constantly hunts pucks. A winner- he won a USHL championship with Dubuque in 2013, took 2018 NCAA tournament MVP honors in leading UMD to a national title, then was part of Boston’s extended run to the SCF a year later. That kind of thing is not an accident. Can play center and wing- able to take key defensive faceoffs when needed and has a quick stick in the dot to win draws.

Weaknesses: Size is average, and he’s not a skill player by any means. A standout player for Cloquet High, he was not a point producer in the USHL or in college, so he’s not going to have the offensive ceiling to be a front line forward in the NHL.

Overall analysis/projection: The leg injury set Kuhlman back, and as his 1 goal and 6 points in 25 games this season can attest, he’s in a low-end depth role right now with Boston. At age 24, he’s old enough and mature- he can play up or down the lineup if needed, but with the B’s healthy when the NHL’s expected resumption happens in July-August, he’ll have a challenge ahead to work himself into the lineup on a regular basis.

Going forward, we can envision Kuhlman carving out more of a role for himself as a checker/grinder/Swiss Army knife player the Boston coaches trust in certain situations. He’s not going to go out and score 30 goals and 60 points, but in the B’s system, could develop into a regular role player because of his versatility, drive and jam.

The B’s haven’t just enjoyed success finding college free agents- they hit on former Swift Current/WHL captain Colby Cave, who suddenly and tragically passed away this spring while a member of the Edmonton organization, but the NCAA pipeline has been a productive one for Boston. Kuhlman should continue to contribute going forward, and the B’s continued the pattern by signing college defenders Jack Ahcan (St. Cloud State) and Nick Wolff (Kuhlman’s UMD teammate) this past March.

His only goal this season vs Vancouver an attempted pass that went in off  Troy Stecher

KBJR local feature by Alec Bochner during Kuhlman’s senior season at UMD

In-depth UMD profile on him from October 2017- check out his answer to the question at 7:20 about the one city he would pick up and move to- Kuhl-stradamus?

 

Off the top of the head: Jakub Lauko

The prospect series continues with a quick look at Czech forward Jakub Lauko and what he brings to the table.

Jakub Lauko, LW

2nd selection, 77th overall in 2018 NHL Entry Draft

Current team: Providence Bruins (AHL)

Previous team: Rouyn-Noranda Huskies (QMJHL)

Strengths: Top skater; explosive/elite burst, balance, and the ability to beat defenders wide with straight line speed, or rapid edging/direction change- can turn on a dime. Wins a lot of foot races to loose pucks and has the shifty, slippery elusiveness to get around players 1-on-1. One of the best pure skaters in hockey at any level. Good size: 6-foot-1 frame that is still filling out- just had his 19th birthday last week. Pin-point, flash release on his shot; nose for the net- when he shoots the puck in close, good things happen. Good worker who competes and is willing to embrace a 200-foot responsibility- not one-dimensional.

Weaknesses: Lacks high-end puck skills, vision and offensive hockey IQ, which could cap his offensive ceiling at the NHL level. Lean and light- suffered a concussion in early December after taking a big hit in an AHL game that required a gurney to take him off the ice. Returned to action for the World Jr. Championship tournament late in the month, but suffered a lower body/MCL injury that cost him the rest of the competition, plus all of January and February before returning for four AHL games in March prior to the season-ending COVID-19 situation for the league.

Overall analysis: Getting Lauko in the third round two years ago was very good value for the B’s. He came over to North America to play major junior in the QMJHL, winning the 2019 Memorial Cup championship and subsequently turning pro. His skating and ability to play with pace allowed him to play in the AHL, but his offensive production was indicative of his youth and a middle-of-the-pack skill set. Even though Lauko is a dynamic, game-breaking talent with his wheels, he doesn’t appear to have the hands or creativity to be a top tier scorer at the NHL level. What he can be is an effective 2-way forward who can provide secondary offense and will be a capable three-zone player and penalty killer. He’s got a genuine personality and is well-liked, so he’s easy to root for. Where his draft day fall to the third round raised some eyebrows at the time, it is now apparent that his average hands/skills contributed. Having said that, he’s a solid middle tier prospect who will upgrade his team’s speed/energy and be a good complementary piece- not a driver.

Projection: Capable middle-six forward and PKer at the NHL level; might play more wing than center in the show- time will tell. With only 22 AHL games under his belt, he’s going to need more time in Providence. If the injury bug hits in 20-21, Lauko could see time in Boston as a recall player, but the best thing for him until then will likely be to continue his development track on the farm where he can get quality minutes and play in a variety of situations. At age 19, he’s still quite young, and it’s possible he could raise his offensive profile going forward. However,  his NHL ceiling looks to be about 20 goals/40-45 points at this stage, and that would make for a successful third-round draft choice.

NHL video extended highlights of Sep 23 preseason Bruins-Flyers game. Lauko is 94 and takes opening faceoff, later scores at about 2:10 with a nice self-pass off the wall and a sharp-angle shot.

Here’s Lauko’s 1st AHL goal vs the Rochester Amerks- goes to the net: right place, right time

Happy 2019- Winter Classic thoughts

2019 is here and the Boston Bruins helped ring in the new year in style with a 4-2 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks in the NHL’s annual (since 2008) Winter Classic outdoor game.

Boston’s third trip outside on New Year’s Day was played at the iconic University of Notre Dame football stadium in South Bend, Indiana, the first time a non-football event was played in the home of the Fighting Irish. The B’s were 1-1 in the NHL’s signature event, beating the Philadelphia Flyers at (Frozen) Fenway Park eight years ago on a Marco Sturm OT goal, but getting pumped by the Montreal Canadiens at the home of the New England Patriots, Gillette Stadium, in 2016 by a 5-1 score.

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Tuukka Rask (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

For goaltender Tuukka Rask, the 2019 game was a chance for redemption, and he found it, playing well with 36 saves including multiple breakaways and grade A scoring chances. It was also a milestone event for the veteran netminder who has only known Boston as his NHL home since the 2007-08 season. He passed Hall of Fame goalie Cecil “Tiny” Thompson as the goalie with the most career appearances in franchise history. Rask will soon own the most regular season victories for the team as well.

The soon-to-be-32-year-old may be the most polarizing figure we have seen and covered in the 40+ years of following the team as fan and correspondent. A top talent and former 1st-round pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs before he was dealt to the B’s for Andrew Raycroft even-steven nearly 13 years ago, Rask is often a study in extremes. Ardent fans and supporters often pointing fingers at everyone else on the roster but the man in net when the team doesn’t win with him in the net, while there is an equally obnoxious segment of Boston fans who seem to revel in affixing blame to Rask at every opportunity and making him a convenient scapegoat for their frustrations with the club. There seems to be very little middle ground in the increasingly toxic social media environment when it comes to Rask, but at least in this space, we’ve always tried to be fair-minded in our treatment of the embattled veteran. On this day, he did his job well, and looked every bit the player the Bruins need him to be if they are going to secure a spot in the NHL playoffs for the third consecutive season this spring. The combat math is pretty simple: Rask and Jaroslav Halak give the Bruins the best 1-2 goalie punch in the league. When both of them are on top of their games, the team can beat anyone.

Which brings us to the next point- Patrice Bergeron. It never gets old watching the de facto captain play a textbook complete game of hockey. NHL Network analyst Mike Rupp talked yesterday after the game about how if you polled most NHL players about which player they would want on their team in a one-game, winner-take-all match for the Stanley Cup, you would probably see a large percentage of them vote for Boston’s consummate pro.

Yesterday, we all saw his greatness for what it is- a furious back check to deny a scoring chance at one end that would have opened up a 3-1 advantage for the ‘Hawks, and moments later, an effortless backhand shot that tied the game and opened the door for the B’s to win it on Sean “Clutch” Kuraly’s third period rebound marker (another backhand shot).

At this point of Bergeron’s career, we’re out of superlatives to describe him. He’s the hockey student of the game’s idol- a player who simply does everything right, all day, every day. Some folks are drawn to the sizzle that so many super talents of hockey provide with their speed, pace and skill- you absolutely need those guys. And, the players who rack up oodles of points are always going to get more positive attention than those with middle-of-the-pack numbers. Here’s the rub, though-  those who have careers with skin in the game- whose job security depends on being on the right side of the win-loss column- Bergeron is an inspiration. The Bruins may not have multiple Stanley Cup championships to show for it, but since Bergeron joined the club as a precocious 18-year-old rookie in 2003, it has been a prosperous era for the team despite setbacks and disappointments along the way.

It’s hard to believe because there were other players who popped offensively earlier in their careers, but Bergeron has quietly and steadily climbed to be the third-highest scorer in the storied 2003 NHL Entry Draft class, behind only Eric Staal and Ryan Getzlaf with his 769 career points in 989 games. He’s tied with Thomas Vanek (who will play his 1,000th NHL game on Jan. 4), but Vanek’s days of high production are over- Bergeron will blow by him and establish himself solidly in 3rd behind Staal and Getzlaf. What’s important about this is that offense has never really been the thing that has defined Bergeron’s Hall of Fame career, but he’s proven that the consistent approach of 50-60 points year after year, has helped to propel him to the top of one of the greatest collective draft groups in NHL history. He should have gone over 1,000 NHL games played about 2-3 years ago and would be closing in on 1,000 career points and might be the No. 1 scorer of the 2003 draftees had it not been for 1.5 years of  lockouts and almost 2 full seasons lost to injuries of various types. But even with all the missed time, Bergeron’s impact on the Bruins and the game of hockey cannot be undersold. He is the greatest defensive forward in NHL history. No disrespect to Canadiens great Bob Gainey, who inspired the very Frank J. Selke Trophy which rewards two-way excellence up front, but Bergeron hasn’t benefited from a dynastic machine that the Habs were in the 1970’s, and the offensive production isn’t close.

Simply put- No. 37 is the best there ever was, and he’s inspired a generation of players who want to do things the right way and focus on the habits and details that are lost on so many who can only really focus on the flashy stuff that makes the game so great. There’s room for it all of course, but if I’m in a 1-game knife fight for my hockey life, there’s one guy I’d sell my soul for to have in my lineup: Patrice Bergeron.

Brad Marchand is heating up at the right time. We of course love what David Pastrnak is doing, but the driving engine of Boston’s offense is the Lil’ Ball of Hate, and when he’s finding the back of the net, the wins are plentiful. He generated multiple scoring chances and in the waning seconds, hit the empty net- notching his 42nd point of the season to quietly move closer to Pastrnak’s team-leading 50 points.

Just like Bergeron, both of these forwards embody the luck of the NHL draft- had anyone known what kind of an impact they would have, you’d have seen them go off the board with the 1st or 2nd overall selections in their respective years, and yet, they both essentially fell into Boston’s lap. In a time where fans spend more time kvetching about who the team missed on, it’s sometimes nice to be reminded that the B’s scouting staff, long under the guiding hand of veteran talent chief Scott Bradley and Ryan Nadeau’s vision and leadership, has had some tremendous bargain finds over the years. And we haven’t even gotten into Charlie McAvoy, Anders Bjork, Jack Studnicka and Jakub Lauko yet.

And like Bergeron, Marchand is ascending to the top of the 2006 draft’s scoring list. Of all the players from that class, only Niklas Backstrom, Phil Kessel, Claude Giroux and Jonathan Toews have more than Marchand’s 503 points and counting.

Finally, it was great to see Zdeno Chara out there after returning from injury. Like Tim Wakefield near the end of his MLB career, Chara is a lifetime Bruin, though he played elsewhere before making the Hub his home. He has quietly racked up nearly 1,000 games in the Black and Gold, and like Bergeron, is headed for a place in Toronto’s Hockey Hall of Fame. He’s not the horse he was in his prime, but the steady play, experience and value he provides cannot be understated. Once he retires, whenever that is, the B’s will have a challenge to replace what he means to the club on and off the ice. Instead of rushing to anoint the next wave of youth (and there are some worthy heirs coming down the pipeline), we should all embrace the legend and enjoy him for as long as we can. Once he’s gone, we may not ever see another player quite like him.

Okay- that about does it. Here’s hoping you all have a great and prosperous 2019. Thanks as always for reading the sporadic posts on the blog- didn’t cover all the ground I wanted to on this one, but be on the lookout for more content as the season goes on.

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Audio post: KL on Bruins organizational rankings, 3 prospect assessments, Hlinka-Gretzky Cup & more

Zachary Senyshyn of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. Photo by Terry Wilson / OHL Images.

(Photo courtesy of Aaron Bell/OHL Images)

As the summer winds down, figured an audio post to cover more ground than a typical written narrative is the way to go.

In this 60+ minute audio segment, TSP weighs in on some of the Boston Bruins organizational rankings and why it’s a fool’s errand to put much stock in any of them . We also do a three-year on B’s prospects, looking at Ryan Donato, Zach Senyshyn and Jakub Lauko. Plus, we talk about the recently completed Hlinka-Gretzky Cup, the annual first real jump into the NHL draft tracking process. It’s sure looking like the late 2000/2001 birth year is shaping up to be a pretty good draft class!

Enough of the intro- here’s the file.

 

3 Amigos Podcast: Bruins summer update- free agency, draft & rumors

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Thanks to the requests of multiple blog readers, the 3 Amigos decided to reunite in the offseason and last night, the boys did a solid 70+ minutes worth of hockey talk focusing on the Boston Bruins.

While we won’t be as prolific on the blog as before, this is an opportunity to maintain the connection with those passionate fans who helped support us from 2015 to late summer 2017, when the blog went dormant due to job obligations. The truth is- being at the 2018 NHL Draft in Dallas served as a good reminder that you can’t completely walk away from that which you have done for the past 18 years. It was summer 2000 when the New England Hockey Journal hired TSP founder Kirk to cover the Bruins, and after covering nearly every draft since then (minus those when overseas), it was strange not to be working at this most recent draft.

Still- am grateful for all the words of support and encouragement, and fortunate to have two good friends in Dom and Reed who agreed to get the Amigos back together and do some more audio work. The best part of it was just being able to interact with them again, and we have some more things in store for future efforts.

So, enough of the background- here’s the audio file and will post it up on Soundcloud as well.

For those who want to download and listen on Soundcloud, go here:

 

Recapping the Bruins’ draft & free agent signings

Okay, so we’re a little behind here, but wanted to do a blog post on the Boston Bruins most recent transactions, which includes the 2018 NHL Entry Draft in Dallas  and free agency, which opened with a boom on Sunday for the Toronto Maple Leafs, landing a true crown jewel in John Tavares, who leaves the NY Islanders in his prime (not yet 28) for his childhood team. The Bruins were in it as a possible Tavares destination, but in hindsight, it was probably the Isles or the Leafs and everyone else didn’t really have a shot. That’s life, but more on that later.

And, if the Isles need some comforting, they had what looks to be a successful draft, leveraging multiple first-round picks and value throughout the subsequent rounds into an impressive haul for them.

First up, the B’s draft recap:

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