Stanley Cup Final: Kuraly breaking through for Bruins

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If you handed out an MVP trophy for the best player of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final (rather than the full postseason, with the Conn Smythe), then Sean Kuraly would be the unlikely frontrunner for the Boston Bruins.

Kuraly’s been crucial in the Bruins taking a 2-1 series lead through the first three games against the St. Louis Blues, scoring two goals (both of Boston’s game-winners) and two assists.

Even for those of us who targeted Kuraly as a potential surprise breakthrough candidate really didn’t see this coming.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

In a way, Kuraly’s getting all the bounces he wasn’t enjoying during most of this postseason, all at once. His two goals during the past three games came on just five shots on goal, good for a 40 shooting percentage. Kuraly’s 3-0 goal from Game 3 qualifies as a head’s up play, but there was also some luck involved in catching Jordan Binnington by surprise with such a quick release (and maybe partial screen?), not to mention the luck of surviving the offside review.

But, again, there’s an argument that Kuraly has been “due.”

Through the first 13 games of his postseason run – Kuraly missed some time due to hand surgery – Kuraly fired 38 shots on goal, matching Blues forwards Ryan O'Reilly, Oskar Sundqvist, and Brayden Schenn, who generated that many in 19 games (and more average ice time, most glaringly for ROR and Schenn). Even if you chalk up some of that shot volume to quantity over quality, Kuraly had been unlucky, only scoring two goals and five points, giving him just a 5.3 shooting percentage.

Delightfully, the deeper you dig into Kuraly’s stats, the more it looks like the Bruins unearthed another gem.

Any scoring from Kuraly should be considered gravy, because he’s really been asked to do a lot of the dirty work for the Bruins.

So far during the postseason, Kuraly’s begun an absurd 89 percent of his even-strength shifts in the defensive zone. (According to Natural Stat Trick, he’s had 48 defensive zone starts, 68 in the neutral zone, and just seven in the offensive zone.)

Considering his heavy workload, it’s impressive that Kuraly’s largely broken even in the possession game, and the Bruins have actually generated more high-danger chances for (35) than against (32) at even-strength with Kuraly on the ice.

That’s … pretty remarkable, especially for a nominal “fourth-liner.”

One of Kuraly’s defining skills is his speed. As The Point noted heading into his postseason debut, Kuraly uses his skating to be an absolute beast in transition, which is likely part of the reason that Bruce Cassidy loves deploying him in such heavy defensive assignments.

Cassidy also singled out Kuraly as a player who deserved more recognition in April:

Game 1 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final likely ranks as the high point for Kuraly, along with his linemates Joakim Nordstrom and Noel Acciari.

Not only did Kuraly score a gritty game-winning goal and set up Connor Clifton with a tremendous pass, but that trio drew the occasional assignment against the Blues’ top line of Vladimir Tarasenko, Brayden Schenn, and Jaden Schwartz. It says a lot about Kuraly’s line – and Cassidy’s confidence in that line – that they got that opportunity, and didn’t just earn a draw, but occasionally actually won the matchup against Tarasenko’s group.

Looking forward, it’s tough to tell if Kuraly might be a more regular scorer.

The 26-year-old managed eight goals and 21 points in 71 regular-season games, managing a solid 134 SOG considering his modest TOI average of 13:46 per game, but his shooting percentage was low at six percent. Kuraly’s career shooting percentage is even lower at 5 percent, and the sample size isn’t tiny at 154 games. It’s fair to wonder if Kuraly may be lacking a bit as a shooter.

Of course, opportunity plays into the discussion.

Kuraly saw his ice time climb significantly once January rolled around, a lot like Sundqvist with the Blues, he’s seen a prominent role during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Kuraly’s averaging 15:37 TOI per game, fifth-most among Bruins forwards, ahead of Charlie Coyle, Jake DeBrusk, and Danton Heinen.

The Bruins probably aren’t sweating the question of whether Kuraly can ascend in the lineup, or if he’ll merely remain a really, really good depth player.

That’s because Kuraly has the contract that figures to give Boston a competitive advantage. Via Cap Friendly, Kuraly’s cap hit comes in at a measly $1.275 million, and it runs through 2020-21, with no sign of performance bonuses.

Boston’s shown an uncanny knack for supplementing top players like Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron with smart late first-rounders like David Pastrnak, and hidden gems such as undrafted Torey Krug. By getting Kuraly in the Martin Jones trade, and locking him up to an extremely cheap contract, the Bruins seem to have struck it rich again with Kuraly.

If he keeps scoring, even better, but the Bruins will gladly take the version of Kuraly who was quietly winning tough matches for them.

Game 4 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final airs on NBC at 8 p.m. ET on Monday (stream here).

BREAKING DOWN BLUES-BRUINS GAME 3:
Bruins blast Blues, take 2-1 lead in Stanley Cup Final
Blues special teams continue to be sour note 
Berube keeping the faith in Binnington after rough Game 3

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.