With Ondrej Kase out, opportunity knocks for young Bruins

At the time of the Great Pause of 2020, Anders Bjork and Karson Kuhlman had been pushed out of the Bruins’ lineup by the club’s two deadline acquisitions and Jack Studnicka was preparing for what was hoped to be a developmentally-pivotal Calder Cup playoff run with the Providence Bruins.

But with each passing day that Ondrej Kase remains in protocol purgatory and cannot practice with his still-new teammates, the idea that one of those youngsters can play a significant role in the lineup is coming more and more real.

Coach Bruce Cassidy conceded as much in his Zoom call with reporters after Thursday’s Warrior Ice Arena practice.

“Clearly, Ondrej hasn’t joined us. We’re traveling Sunday so we’re down to two practices here before we hit Toronto. He’s got some catching up to do so, yes, if we feel he’s not caught up and Bjork is playing well, or Jack for that matter — I’ll say Bjork and (Kuhlman) because they were here a major part of the year — but if it happens to be Jack or someone else in that mix, that’s the direction we’ll go,” said Cassidy.

“I haven’t seen Ondrej play in the playoffs. Sometimes those guys have an advantage, the veteran guys who have been there, it is a different game, the stakes go up. You’ve got to experience it to truly appreciate it,” he continued. “But I haven’t seen him play a whole lot of playoff hockey. He would be a guy we would not be 100 percent sure on either on how he’s going to perform at that level. We assume he will be fine, but now you’re chasing it a bit being this far behind, so we have to look at that. And we’ve said that all along. Take out the injury factor, there could be people that for testing purposes fall behind and you have to rely on your depth. We’re experiencing that a bit right now, even though we haven’t played any games, so the potential certainly does exist.”

For the record, Kase had played 13 playoff games with the Anaheim Ducks, registering two goals. But, depending on how soon Kase can get back, he’ll be up against it in trying to develop a chemistry with potential linemates. It was presumed he was going to play with Czech countryman David Krejci, but that’s clearly up in the air now.

With Kase, David Pastrnak and Nick Ritchie not available to practice — neither Kase nor Pastrnak have practiced with the team yet while Ritchie missed his second day after being one of the nine who were absent on Saturday — Cassidy had Bjork in Pastrnak’s spot with Patrice Bergeron, Studnicka on Krejci’s right side and Kuhlman skating on the right side with center Charlie Coyle and left wing Sean Kuraly.

While Cassidy gave a slight edge to both Bjork and Kuhlman because of their NHL experience — and Kuhlman scoring a big goal in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final last year after Cassidy made the bold decision to play him over David Backes — Studnicka is an interesting option.

Considered by most to be the B’s best prospect, Studnicka has been groomed to be a center with the club reluctant to shift him to wing. The B’s will be in need of centermen in a couple of years and strength down the middle has been a hallmark of their recent success, so the focus on getting Studnicka ready for that duty is understandable.

But while it’s true the organization sees Studnicka’s future as being in the middle, unusual times call for unusual measures. It’s clear from the past few days that Cassidy is open to the idea of Studnicka moving over to the right side to help in a pinch. Only live game action will tell if he can handle big defensemen coming down along the wall, but Cassidy has liked what he’s seen from him the past few days.

“Will he have the composure to make a play when he has time, or the strength to get it out when he doesn’t? Those game situations will dictate that. But he’s the same player in terms of hounding pucks whether he’s at center or a winger. That part of his game I don’t think changes a lot. He likes to pursue it. He’s a good second-effort player. He’s going to make plays whether he’s in the middle or on the right side and certainly has here. But it will be the little details of the game,” said Cassidy.

“Until he gets against live action, we’re not sure. But I like the compete, I like the fact hat he’s engaged every day in practice. It looks like he’s very fit. That part of it, he does not look out of place and he actually has looked pretty good in some of the drills. That’s the start. That’s step one, show that you belong and then excel against the guys he’s competing against. Time will tell with that in the next 10 days or so.”

It wouldn’t be the first time a natural centerman made his initial entry into the Bruins’ lineup on the right wing. If you can believe it, it was almost 17 years ago that Patrice Bergeron, who has become the quintessential centerman, became an 18-year-old NHLer on the right wing under then-coach Mike Sullivan. Though Cassidy wasn’t here in 2003 to see a young Bergeron, he sees similarities between the two.

“I think it’s a fair comparable in terms of how they play right now,” said Cassidy. “Bergy is good at everything but he’s not like this flashy guy. And I do see that with Jack. He’s a second-effort player, never quits on a play, can make plays, smart, can work both ends of the ice. I think Bergy’s shot is ahead of Jack’s and rightfully so. Jack’s going to have to work on that part of it and I’m sure Bergy had to as well over the years Some of it is getting stronger, some of that is knowing the league. A quick release is paramount if you want to score goals… Bergy started in the league as a right wing, and Jack may have to do that. I don’t want to project but when you look at Bergeron, Krejci, Coyle, Kuraly, (Par) Lindholm, we’re pretty strong down the middle, there might be an opportunity to make our team on the wing.”

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