As soon as the news broke on Wednesday afternoon that the Bruins were waiving Brett Ritchie, the natural reaction from many was that the power forward’s demotion was a direct retort to the lack of response during Tuesday’s loss in Columbus — a contest in which Tuukka Rask was concussed just 1:12 into the opening period.
But rather than opt for a thumper like Trent Frederic, Boston replaced Ritchie with a bit more speed in the bottom-six unit, as Karson Kuhlman was recalled from Providence and is expected to slot back into the lineup for Thursday’s matchup against the Penguins. Bruising winger Anton Blidh also practiced on Thursday at Warrior, but is still technically on a conditioning assignment and is not quite cleared to play with Boston.
For Bruce Cassidy, the decision to end the experiment with Ritchie is tied in more with his overall play than his individual response in Columbus.
“We feel as though Brett has had some good games, done some of the things we ask or expected to help us win,” Cassidy said. “Other times, we had to push him to get there. The timing of some of our guys getting healthy has something to do with it. Kuhlman — he’s a guy that played well for this team last year. Completely different player than Brett Ritchie in terms of their stature, but we like Kuhlman’s ability to play with pace, to help on the forecheck. Adds to the penalty kill, so you got another (player) for special teams and a guy that we watched for the last year and feel that we can help us.
"Blidh is still on conditioning, getting ready to come back. He’s another guy that’s been down in Providence, paying his dues that we feel may be able to add some spunk to our lineup and maybe drag us into a few of these battles. That’s kind of how Anton plays. He’s not far, but some of the decisions went into these younger guys.”
Cassidy added: “No, we’re not sitting here punishing (Ritchie) individually. We felt a couple guys tried to engage with the Columbus player, didn’t happen, so now what do you do? Do you just don’t give him a choice and deal with the consequences of the league, or do you just play? We chose to just play. I thought we had some guys that tried to respond, and the player wasn't interested, so we moved on. So no, it wouldn’t have been anything to do with that particular incident.”
Tuesday was not the only time this season that the Bruins have had liberties taken against their top players. Back on Dec. 23 against the Capitals, the Bruins lost both Torey Krug and Charlie McAvoy to heavy hits from Tom Wilson and T.J. Oshie, while Wilson also speared David Pastrnak below the belt. Add in multiple clubs repeatedly finishing checks against Pastrnak all year long, and Bruins have more often than not been hunted, and not the hunter, in 2019-20.
Now, that's not to say the Bruins should goon it up and play a style of game that is becoming more and more of relic of today's NHL— nor will targeting players with suspension-worthy retaliations do all that much but draw the ire of the league. But, when the going gets tough and liberties are taken, the Bruins need to mount some sort of response — even if it's as simple as following through on checks against the opposing team's skill.
From Cassidy’s perspective, bringing back the days of the “Big Bad Bruins” simply isn’t feasible in 2020, as skill and speed continue to become major building blocks for successful NHL franchises.
But, as the 2019 Blues and 2018 Caps can attest to, a team relying on skill alone often cannot make through the gauntlet that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs.