Analyzing the Future of the Bruins Bottom-Six Forwards

(Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe)

By: Zach Carlone | Follow me on Twitter! @zcarlone21

The outcome of the 2020-21 Bruins season could be described as bleak at best as the team underperformed against a defensively sound New York Islanders squad that’s made their second straight Eastern Conference Finals appearance. It would be unfair to point the blame to any one part of the team for their series loss, but many players who slid under the radar during the shortened regular season didn’t come ready to play in the series. Not only that, but the defense took a lot of hits, including a big loss of Brandon Carlo in the second round, and goaltender Tuukka Rask attempted to keep the team afloat while playing with a torn labrum.

Therefore, in my eyes, I think a lot of the blame for a series loss like this one can and should be put on the Bruins bottom-six forward group, players that should’ve been able to support the Bruins talent-heavy top line. A lot of the complete performances in the Bruins playoff games this season came from forwards Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak, Taylor Hall, and David Krejci. No one in the bottom-six really executed on any level to give the Bruins a chance to beat the Islanders, and it showed most notably in a horrific and lackluster effort in Game 6.

Bruins General Manager Don Sweeney should have a primary focus on building a stronger defense and answering the questions regarding the pending unrestricted free agents (i.e., Krejci, Rask), but the Bruins performance from the bottom-six in the playoffs shouldn’t be considered just a fluke. Sweeney should really try his best to look at improving a group of six forwards that was limited to just five goals in 11 playoff games. All of the forwards in the bottom-six also finished the playoffs with a negative +/- stat outside of winger Nick Ritchie who finished even.

Nick Ritchie

Ritchie finished the playoffs with one goal and four points in eleven games. Coming into the postseason, Ritchie had scored a career-high 15 goals in his first full season with the black and gold. He held a spot as a net-front presence on the first power-play unit for some of the season and got a lot of his production getting to the dirty areas in front of the net. His demotion to the fourth line in the series against the Islanders is a big concern for the 25-year-old restricted free agent.

While I think the Bruins should give Ritchie a little more time to possibly find smarter and more competitive linemates next season (center Jack Studnicka comes to mind), his future with the club should be in question. The Bruins don’t want to dive money into somebody who can peak and drop as much as Ritchie did, but I guess a lot of the bottom-six followed that same pattern, so who knows.

Charlie Coyle

More likely than not, Charlie Coyle won’t be going anywhere else anytime soon. He signed a massive six-year, 31.5 million dollar deal towards the end of the 2019-20 campaign shortly after being acquired via trade with the Minnesota Wild. This season, his numbers took a tumble, and he finished with just six goals and 16 points through the regular season. He had just three points in 11 playoff games, and the production needs to take a turn for the better next season.

It’d be hard to move Coyle’s contract to a team needy of a third-line center with the flat salary cap for the NHL in place for the next several years, and it’d cost the Bruins more assets just to unload the contract, whether it be draft picks or a highly-regarded prospect. It’s not worth it, but Coyle needs to find his game without a doubt. For Coyle not to move, he’s definitely going to need some new faces as his flanks on the third line in order to keep this team as a contender.

Jake DeBrusk

The 24-year-old winger has seen better days in a Bruins sweater, with none of them coming in the 2020-21 season. After posting a career-high of 27 goals in the 2018-19 season, DeBrusk finished with just five in 41 games this season. While it was a shorter season, DeBrusk wasn’t his usual fiery self anyways. It seems like the Bruins don’t have much of a leash for the left-handed forward, and he’ll also be a restricted free agent next offseason.

DeBrusk should be a Bruins forward that Sweeney should consider moving. He’s young and still has the potential to be a middle-six forward. While his value may be at an all-time low, it should still be worthwhile to listen to offers. The Bruins need help toughening their entire defense and finding more stability on the left side of it. A “rebuilding” or “re-tooling” team could take a swing on DeBrusk in return for some potential defensive help for the Bruins.

Sean Kuraly/Chris Wagner

Kuraly is currently an unrestricted free agent with no reported deal with the Bruins. He finished the playoffs with zero points in 11 games after posting nine points in 47 regular-season games. While his aggressive forecheck and motivation as a fourth-liner give life to the Bruins, his production isn’t anything that’ll help the Bruins anymore. He came up with big-time goals in big games prior to this season but lost the opportunities this year. I’m not so sure Sweeney should put much of an effort into re-signing Kuraly, but rather instead, should find a productive fourth-line center to take his place, whether he’s already in the organization or not.

Chris Wagner had a pretty tough year, and you really can’t blame him for it. His mental health, and any player’s health for that matter, shouldn’t be overlooked whatsoever. A similar presence as Kuraly, ‘Wags’ finished the playoffs with zero points and finished the regular season with just five. The 30-year-old winger is signed through the 2022-23 season, but his future with the club should be in question too. He served much of the regular season games he missed as just a healthy scratch, and maybe much of the same next season if he sticks around. If he does stick around, he’s a competitive role player that potential newcomers could learn a thing or two from.

Curtis Lazar/Karson Kuhlman

Lazar, a right-handed forward acquired as part of the Taylor Hall trade, made a physical impact in the Bruins bottom-six with his arrival just prior to the NHL Trade Deadline. He didn’t produce as much on the scoresheet as many would’ve hoped, but he made a good effort to do so night in and out. The 26-year-old finished with four points in 17 regular-season games with the Bruins and had just one assist in the playoffs. Lazar is an unrestricted free agent after next season but should definitely be given more of a sample size to flourish in the bottom-six this upcoming season.

Kuhlman had been a strong presence with the Providence Bruins this season but only potted two goals in 20 contests with the Bruins. He showed signs of brilliance in some areas of the game, but time is running out on his development as he’s now 25-years-old. The Bruins may look to roll with a new right-handed winger in his place when the time comes or opt to keep Kuhlman around as a leader for the Providence Bruins and an extra call-up when injuries arise.

Trent Frederic

Perhaps one of the least likely of any of the bottom-six players along with Coyle to be on the move this offseason, Frederic had an interesting season in his first full one in the NHL. Head coach Bruce Cassidy seemed to keep the 23-year-old as more of a situational player rather than a regular. In 41 regular-season games, Frederic had four goals and five points. He didn’t suit up for any games this postseason, which left Bruins fans scratching their heads as they still look at the poor production of the bottom-six in the playoffs.

Frederic brings a fresh spark to the bottom six that I think is worth sticking around. His main specialty last season was getting under the opponents’ skins and laying momentum-building hits. While he’s still young, the hope should be for Frederic to develop his game further over the offseason, focusing potentially on the offensive and defensive components of the game, forcing Cassidy to no choice but to play him fully next season. The potential is there for him to be a difference-maker in the bottom-six beyond next season too.

General Manager Don Sweeney has a lot on his plate this offseason, as the Bruins have now been eliminated in the second round two seasons in a row after making a Stanley Cup Final appearance in 2019. Most of the Bruins core is under contract for next season besides goaltender Tuukka Rask and center David Krejci, and with the trade for winger Taylor Hall last season and talks of a potential extension now heating up, it would make sense for the Bruins to give it another shot next year.

The holes in the defense that was clearly visible in the Bruins second-round loss to the New York Islanders should be Sweeney’s main focus, but he shouldn’t stop there. There’s plenty of improvement to be made for the Bruins bottom-six, whether moves are made on the trade market or when free agency begins on July 28th. Either way, we can all agree the Bruins bottom-six needs to be better come next season.

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