BOSTON — With Riley Nash now out of the picture, the Boston Bruins have a vacancy at center on the third line.
The question, of course, is who will step up and win the job?
Sean Kuraly, who impressed in his rookie season while centering the fourth line, could earn a promotion, while newcomer Chris Wagner has a shot, as well. Three rookies, however, will headline the battle: Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, Jack Studnicka and Trent Frederic.
So, who are these guys?
Forsbacka Karlsson, a 21-year-old Boston University product from Sweden, has drawn (probably unfair) comparisons to Patrice Bergeron for his impressive two-way game. Frederic, 20, spent the last two seasons at the University of Wisconsin and plays a gritty, in-your-face style of hockey.
As for Studnicka, the 19-year-old Ontario native still is a relative unknown, but might feature the best raw talent of the three.
All three were invited to the Bruins preseason trip to China, a clear sign the coaching staff thinks highly of them. And although Forsbacka Karlsson, Frederic and Studnicka all are hesitant to express how badly they want to beat out their teammates, there’s no doubt each is willing to do whatever it takes to make the team.
“I try not to focus on that too much,” Studnicka, a second-round pick in the 2017 NHL Draft, said Thursday at Bruins rookie camp. “I don’t want to speak for the other guys, but I think them, too.
“We’re trying to have a good time. And there’s obviously an internal competition, but at the same time, you just want to focus on playing your game and leaving it all on the line.”
Studnicka, who has the least amount of AHL experience of the three (five games compared to 13 for Frederic and 58 for Forsbacka Karlsson), hasn’t had many opportunities to show what he can do. Still, the Ontario Hockey League standout believes he’s proven he belongs.
“Yeah I think so,” he said. “I’ve never thought I could do more. I think I’ve showed my skill set well, and I’m looking to have that opportunity.”
Frederic, meanwhile, is a bit more transparent about his eagerness to win the job.
“It’s one of the reasons I’m excited, this is gonna be a good time to come here,” the 2016 first-round pick said. “There’s an opportunity, I’m gonna do everything I can, and if it doesn’t work out then there’s nothing I can do.”
Forsbacka Karlsson, who Boston selected in the second round of the 2015 draft, played in one game for the Bruins during the 2016-17 season. But after racking up 15 goals and 17 assists in a full season with the Providence Bruins, the former BU star — who goes by “JFK” — is on the cusp of earning a full-time gig in the NHL.
“I feel like it’s always going to be a competition when you’re in the NHL,” he said. “It’s going to be a fun trip (to China), and I think it’s going to be a great opportunity for me to show my game.”
There’s no denying all three youngsters have what it takes to excel at the NHL level. Ultimately, however, the battle for the third-line center might come down to who is the best fit right now.
Providence head coach Jay Leach believes each player brings something unique to the table.
“They all have different assets,” Leach said Thursday. “JFK has high-end skill, he can make high-end plays. You can put him with some real skilled players, and he’ll be able to make plays. (Frederic) is a little old school, he’s up and down. He can make plays — by no means is he lacking on the skill front — but he has a little bit more of an abrasive style.
” … From what little I’ve seen of (Studnicka), he’s probably a cross between the two of them, really.”
The Bruins were blessed with an influx of young talent last season that contributed immediately. Given the current state of the roster, however, there simply aren’t enough spots for rookies this time around.
But if there was one takeaway to be had at Bruins rookie camp, it’s this: With players like Forsbacka Karlsson, Frederic and Studnicka, Boston’s youth movement still is alive and well.
Thumbnail photo via Bob DeChiara/USA TODAY Sports Images