Karson Kuhlman has all of 11 NHL games under his belt, and it appears that was all he needed to show the Bruins his worth.
Kuhlman skated with the second line alongside David Krejci and Jake DeBrusk during Monday’s practice, essentially penciling him into the Bruins’ lineup for Thursday’s Game 1 against the Maple Leafs.
Part of that is his skill set, including his speed and being able to kill penalties. The other part is he’s just flat out earned the chance in his limited time.
“You get young players, you just don’t know necessarily,” general manager Don Sweeney said. “You can forecast all you want, but until they get in any situations and how they’re going to perform, you don’t know. He’s performed well. He has a history of playing his best hockey at crucial times.”
Kuhlman has three goals and two assists since joining the NHL ranks, and he’s been the unlikely source to stabilize the second-line right wing spot. After that position was a revolving door all season — and, likely, it will be again at times in the postseason — Kuhlman has done a solid job staying with Krejci and DeBrusk.
“I think ever since coming in to Providence, I’ve really focused on little things,” he said. “Better around the net, better possessing pucks around the corner, little things like that the coaches have really helped me on and harped to me. A lot of that stuff is translating here in the past couple weeks.”
Kuhlman’s style fits the Bruins’ identity, being tough to play against while having offensive skill as well. In some ways, Kuhlman’s offensive punch has been surprising so soon, but not in the way he’s accomplished it.
His hockey IQ, being around the right areas at the right time, and his speed have earned him this look.
“I suspect (Toronto will) want to play that way,” Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said. “Their form of success against us would be outskating us, outskilling us, the power play. We have to be ready for that Game 1.”
David Backes is the odd man out if Kuhlman does stay in the lineup, and that speed factor has plenty to do with it.
Without a doubt, however, if Kuhlman hadn’t played as well as he has, it looks different.
“I like Kuhlman up with Krejci the games he’s played,” Cassidy said. “He brings speed, the penalty kill with (Sean) Kuraly out. It’s going to be important against Toronto. … Right now we’re not going to worry about he doesn’t have playoff experience. … Doesn’t seem to be fazed by much.”
Kuraly’s inevitable return to the lineup could change things as well, but Kuhlman has plenty of supporters in the organization along with those simply paying attention.
“I think he knows what his strengths are, and he tries to play to those, which again, coaches appreciate,” Sweeney said. “When you have the ability to plug a player in, and he doesn’t change regardless of the situation, I think that’s a benefit for all parties. And I think that’s what Karson’s done. He’s played in all different roles and up and down the lineup, but he’s handled himself really well, and he’s earned the opportunity to be here and be in the mix.”
On the night his alma mater Minnesota-Duluth is back in the Frozen Four, Kuhlman appears likely to make his NHL postseason debut.
Some of his postseason experience, albeit at a lower level, is an asset. Playing in the Stanley Cup playoffs will bring about a new intensity, which might be a concern.
Either way, Kuhlman has come a long way since this time a year ago, and he’s earned it.
“It’s been a heck of a year, that’s for sure,” Kuhlman said.