By: Michael DiGiorgio | Follow Me On Twitter @BostonDiGiorgio
When Don Sweeney took over as General Manager of the Boston Bruins, one item on his to-do list was to send his scouts to a relatively untapped market. Historically, American college hockey took a backseat to leagues like Canada’s Ontario Hockey League, Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League, and Sweden’s Elite Swedish League. Draft-eligible players found themselves forgoing college hockey and playing in these leagues because that’s where the competition was. Over the last seven or eight years, though, American college hockey has attracted more stars, and NHL teams have noticed.
Don Sweeney played at Harvard University from 1984-1988. He is familiar with the talent in the college hockey system, which explains his vested interest. Some of his recent draft picks have even come from Boston University, University of Denver, and the University of Wisconsin. Moreover, he’s made sure his scouts are also looking for players who weren’t drafted in June and invite them to training camp. One player in particular who fits this situation is Karson Kuhlman.
The Esko, Minnesota native played his college hockey 20 minutes northeast of his hometown at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. Karson was awarded captain his senior year and posted a modest 80 points and an impressive plus-47 rating in 166 games for the Bulldogs. He and his teammates won the franchise’s second National Championship in 2017-18. Karson was named MVP of the Frozen Four and scored a goal and an assist in the title game. Kuhlman’s style of play fits the Bruins style perfectly. He is a smaller center, with great hands, a lethal shot, and the ability to lead on and off the ice.
— NCAA Ice Hockey (@NCAAIceHockey) April 7, 2018
Unfortunately, Kuhlman was not drafted during his eligibility year in 2014. He was invited to two training camps by the Winnipeg Jets and Montreal Canadiens. Neither team saw enough to sign him. Thankfully, his hometown roots made him a rememberable name to another Minnesota Native with Bruin ties. Jamie Langenbrunner, former NHL right-winger, and current Bruins player development coach, knew Kuhlman before the NHL teams caught on. Langenbrunner has long been impressed by Kuhlman’s “attention to detail. He’s a kid that plays a pro-style game in the way he positions himself, uses his body, gets pucks out on walls.
The Bruins invited Kuhlman to their 2017 development camp to see what Langenbrunner had advocated. He left the Bruins without a deal, but they kept a keen eye on him. Following his senior year, the Bruins signed Kuhlman to a 2-year, $1.5M contract, and he reported directly to Providence. He would only play in three games, notching two assists for the baby Bruins. The following year, he played through the end of January for the Bruins’ AHL farm team and received the call up to the Boston Bruins when one of their star players injured himself.
David Pastrnak slipped on ice in the Boston streets and injured his thumb. This created an empty roster spot, which Kuhlman was called to fill. He joined the Bruins on their west coast road trip and lit the lamp in his second career NHL game.
He would play in nine more regular-season games and made the playoff roster. He played through game one of the Columbus series and was eventually scratched for the veteran David Backes. Kuhlman would watch the Bruins from the ninth floor until game six of the Stanley Cup finals. Similar to his time in Minnesota, Kuhlman shined on the team’s biggest stage.
Both the Stanley Cup goal and the NCAA Championship goal featured Kuhlman’s lethal shot. He has immense power and accuracy from most areas of the offensive zone, and both goals are evidence of that. His willingness to shoot the puck in any spot of the offensive zone will pay dividends for his style of play in the long run.
The 24-year old was set to make a lasting impact on the Bruins second line at the beginning of the 2019 regular season. He formed great chemistry with Jake DeBrusk and David Krejci right off the bat. The Bruins and its fanbase were hopeful they found the top-six winger they’d been longing for. He was averaging nearly 13 minutes a game through the first eight games in October until he suffered an unfortunate injury.
— NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSBoston) October 23, 2019
It wouldn’t be until January 3, 2020, that Kuhlman would return to the ice. He was sent to Providence for a conditioning stint to get his legs back and up to game speed. Once again, Kuhlman didn’t skip a beat and notched three points in four games, one of which was an impressive score.
Karson Kuhlman with a 200-foot shift and beautiful pass to Woods which results in a goal. Kuhlman supports his defenders behind his own net and helps breaks it out. He carries the puck backhand, turns on the jets, blows past his guy and feeds Woods. Get him to Boston. #NHLBruins pic.twitter.com/14kBQBaGbu
— Bruins Network (@BruinsNetwork) January 12, 2020
The Bruins finally called up Kuhlman on January 16, 2020, against the Pittsburgh Penguins, where he set up two Bruin goals. Karson’s call up is also interesting timing. The Bruins had just sent down Brett Ritchie and are still looking for the top-six winger that’s plagued them for years. Kuhlman’s skill is undeniable, but is he the answer for Krejci’s wing?
That is still to be determined. He has yet to play a full season as a top-six forward. He certainly fits the mold of what the Bruins search for in players. He’s versatile, leads by example, and plays on both ends of the ice. He even throws his body around quite well for a sub-6-foot forward. Karson has already earned the trust of his coaches and the organization, which could yield significant benefits in the future.
Even if he doesn’t answer the Bruins hole on the second line, he would fit nicely with Danton Heinen and Charlie Coyle on the third line. That line combination would be a high-speed, hard-hitting, skillful third unit to counter the league’s top counterparts. Karson is a mainstay on this Bruins roster, and time will tell what line is best for him and the franchise.