Among the many moves made by new Boston Bruins general manager Don Sweeney during.....whatever it was he was doing last June, the Bruins picked up Miami's Sean Kuraly, a former fifth-round draft choice from the San Jose Sharks. That deal sent goalie Martin Jones, himself acquired by the B's earlier that weekend, to San Jose with the Bruins yielding a first round draft choice in the 2016 NHL Draft and Kuraly in return. The first round pick, which early returns suggest will be in the mid-first round this coming June, was the signature part of that deal, but with the Bruins sending San Jose a #1 goalie, Kuraly was far from just a throw-in in the deal.
So what should the Bruins expect out of Kuraly? Last season, we ranked Kuraly as the 21st-best NHL prospect in the NCAA last season. To better judge his pro potential, I took a closer look at his game on Saturday October 31st in a game against St. Cloud State to get a better idea of what Kuraly brings to the table and what his pro potential might be.
Starting with the basics, Kuraly is listed at 6-2 210 lbs and that seems very legit per the eyeball test. I would have believed it if they gave him another inch and 10 lbs. Kuraly is a natural centerman is centering Miami's first line flanked by Blackhawks prospect Anthony Louis and senior Alex Gacek. The RedHawks use him on both their top power play and penalty kill units.
It's been a very slow start to the season for Miami in general, and Kuraly in particular. He's registered just a single assist through eight games. The good news, if you want to call it that, is that the Bruins likely weren't interested in Kuraly for his scoring ability. Prior to this season, he was only averaging about .6 points/game for his NCAA career, which is good enough, but doesn't suggest a player that is going to light it up at the pro level. The thing that likely had the Bruins so intrigued was how good Kuraly is elsewhere on the ice, and even though he wasn't scoring, he was very effective elsewhere on the ice against St. Cloud State.
The first asset most people are going to mention is that Kuraly is very close to dominant in the face-off circle. On Saturday, he took 15 face-offs and won 11 of them, while the rest of his team won just 17 of 42 face-offs. His year-long numbers show similar success. He's at 58.6% for the year, and is tied for 8th nationally in total face-offs won.
Defensively, he gives full effort. On a first period play, he was the F1 forechecker in the St. Cloud State zone, but with a hard backcheck, was able to get back and break up an SCSU scoring chance on the rush. In his own end, he's a tough presence that uses his size to protect his own net front well. He also snowed a sneaky good ability to read the opposition's tendencies by sneaking behind the net and intercepting a D-to-D pass which created a scoring chance for his team.
He hasn't put up numbers on the offensive end, but at least he's not quiet. He's generating chances, but just not seeing results. He currently leads Miami with 28 shots on goal for the season, though none have gone in. His two best scoring chances of the game came in the second period. The first came while short-handed on a semi 2-on-1 rush. The defender collapsed hard on him and Kuraly and Kuraly tried to drag the puck to change his shooting angle, but the shot was blocked. On the second chance, he made a great play to chip a puck over a defenders stick for a clear scoring chance right in front of the net. Kuraly too a high shot that hit off the goalie's mask, though it looked like he had an opportunity to hold the puck a little longer and cut across the crease for a better opportunity. In both instances, he probably would have benefited from a little more poise and patience with the puck. But he's not really that type of flashy, high-skill player.
His bread-and-butter in the offensive zone is using his size to control the play. He frequently gets control of the puck on the perimeter and uses his body to protect the puck while he cycles around the zone, to varying degrees of effectiveness. On one instance, he carried the puck deep into the zone, drawing the defense to him, and opening up his defenseman at the point for a nice shot. Other times, he took the puck up high on the cycle and was pushed out of the zone creating an offsides, or he took the puck in deep behind the net and tried to cut to the net front, but was pushed into the net, knocking it off moorings. He's willing to go to the front of the net and take some punishment in order to be a net front presence, but could likely stand to do that a little bit more, especially with his recent struggles to score.
What does all this mean for the long-term? Bruins fans shouldn't have sky-high expectations for Kuraly. It's doubtful he has the offensive ability to become a top-six forward at the NHL level. But as a bottom-six forward, he could be a valuable asset in the line-up. His game is extremely translatable to the next level because he's a smart, responsible player that understands the game. It remains to be seen if he can continue to play center at the next level. His skating is a bit iffy, but he can make up for some of that with his hockey intelligence, and his face-off ability could be a valuable asset in defensive zone situations. It's not an exciting comparison to make, but he could be a player that carves out a nice niche for himself at the NHL level like Washington's Jay Beagle has.