When Riley Nash inked a contract with the Columbus Blue Jackets back on July 1, the vacancy left in the Bruins’ bottom-six corps loomed large for the remainder of the summer.
Nash’s replacement had big shoes (skates?) to fill, with the pivot tallying a career-high 41 points in 2017-18 while centering a pair of skaters in Danton Heinen and David Backes that logged 331 minutes of 5v5 TOI on the year — good for the third most reps of any forward line on the team.
Such consistency was far from the case the following year, however. Opting to allocate cap space this past offseason on depth (Jaroslav Halak in net, John Moore on defense and both Chris Wagner and Joakim Nordstrom up front), the Bruins went with the in-house route when it came to finding Nash’s replacement, with younger skaters like Sean Kuraly, Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson and Colby Cave all given the keys to the third line.
It didn’t take very long for things to stall.
While both the Bergeron and Krejci lines shouldered most of the scoring burden for the first five months of the season, Bruce Cassidy and his staff struggled to find the right combination on the third line — mixing and matching youngsters like Forsbacka Karlsson and Ryan Donato, incorporating a veteran like Backes and promoting a fourth liner such as Nordstrom.
The most utilized combination — featuring Forsbacka Karlsson, Heinen and Donato — only managed to be out on the ice for four 5v5 goals scored in close to 120 minutes of ice time. That equals out to goals for per 60 minutes rate of 2.00, good for 12th place among all Bruins lines that played more than 50 minutes together this season.
Adding Cave to the mix didn’t alleviate Boston’s secondary-scoring woes, with a line of Nordstrom-Cave-Backes only accounting for 41 percent of total shot attempts in 59 minutes of 5v5 TOI.
Something eventually had to give in late February, when Boston’s third line only managed to generate one high-danger scoring chance through the first four matchups of a five-game road trip out west.
Don Sweeney pulled the trigger — bringing aboard Charlie Coyle and Marcus Johansson in a pair of deals in an effort to balance out Boston’s lineup ahead of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
But few seemed overly encouraged on the eve of postseason play when it came to Boston’s deadline acquisitions. Down the final stretch of the regular season, both Coyle and Johansson only managed to tally three combined goals for the B’s, while the latter's injury in early March limited the window for him to gel with Coyle at center.
In total, both forwards only generated one 5v5 goal in 54:24 of TOI together going into the postseason, giving the Bruins another unproven crew going into the postseason.
At the very least, adding NHL regulars like Coyle and Johansson would give the Bruins a third line that could play a dependable game and not be a liability down the end of the ice.
So far, the combo of Johansson-Coyle-Heinen have lived up to the billing in that facet of the game. What few expected —especially the Hurricanes — is for that line to be a force in the O-zone as well.