Why Tomas Nosek moved up in Bruins’ lineup, not Jack Studnicka

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When Jack Studnicka was sent down to Providence to start the season, it seemed like all it was going to take for him to get his chance in Boston was one injury to a top-nine forward.

The Bruins now have two of those. Nick Foligno has missed the last two games and is currently on injured reserve. Craig Smith missed Sunday’s game and did not travel with the team for its two-game road trip that begins Wednesday night.

So, Studnicka time, right? Well… sort of. Studnicka did make his season debut on Sunday and remains with the team for its swing through Florida and Carolina. He’s just not in the role we all expected.

Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said before the season that Studnicka was probably better suited to a top-nine role than the fourth line. On Sunday, however, Studnicka played exclusively as the fourth-line center between Trent Frederic and Karson Kuhlman, despite openings higher up in the lineup. He started zero shifts in the offensive zone and took just one faceoff there. Instead he was tasked with more defensive-zone work, as Cassidy’s fourth lines often are.

Down two right wings, Cassidy elected to bump Charlie Coyle over to the wing on the second line, but not to make room for Studnicka in the middle. Instead it was Tomas Nosek who got that opportunity between Coyle and Taylor Hall. Oskar Steen, called up alongside Studnicka, landed on the third line next to Jake DeBrusk and Erik Haula.

It may seem like an odd decision at first blush, especially since it was Studnicka who got nearly all the preseason repetitions on the second line while Coyle was recovering from offseason knee surgery. But there is some logic here.

For starters, Cassidy likes the way Nosek has played so far this season, no matter where he has put him. Nosek started the season as the fourth-line center, then moved up to third-line right wing when Foligno went down, and then got promoted again when Smith got hurt. He picked up an assist as a fourth-liner last Wednesday against the Flyers, then scored his first goal of the season as a second-liner on Friday.

In nearly 17 minutes together at five-on-five, the Hall-Nosek-Coyle line has outshot opponents 12-5, holds an 8-4 advantage in scoring chances, and has an expected goals-for percentage of 78.9%. It’s obviously a small sample, and it's entirely possible it proves to be unsustainable, but why mess with it while it’s working?

There’s reason to believe Nosek has more pop than a typical fourth-liner, too. Last year he was actually second on a very good Vegas team in goals per 60 minutes at five-on-five with 1.11. His 0.92 expected goals per 60 led the team. It’s why the Golden Knights were comfortable moving him up to the third line for stretches, and it’s why Cassidy views Nosek as a Swiss Army knife of sorts.

“To me, a Swiss Army knife is a guy that can move around, play different positions, different situations, special teams, etc. He kind of fits that for us,” Cassidy said of Nosek. “He’s been really helpful and has helped us win games early on. He may be that guy all year. For me personally, as a coach, I love having a guy like that. He can create some competition in your lineup if you’re not happy with a certain guy. You can move a guy over there you know can do the job. … It’s a handy tool to have.”

Studnicka, meanwhile, is getting an opportunity to show that he can handle a more defensive role on the fourth line. While that’s certainly not his ideal fit long-term, it could end up being his best opportunity for NHL ice time this season if he’s up to the task.

“They need to learn that part of the game if they want to play,” Cassidy said of Studnicka and other young players trying to break through. “I don’t like to constantly have, ‘Here comes a good player over the boards, we have to get [Patrice Bergeron] out there.’ These young kids have to learn to play against good players. It doesn’t have to be every shift, every night for 82 games, but they have to be comfortable whether it’s two, three, four times a night.

“You don’t want to put them in positions to fail, but they should have some confidence if they get out there. That’s what you’re going to see on the road, tougher matchups if the coach wants to expose those guys. You don’t want to be a 15-minute-a-night player at home and then eight on the road, right? That becomes a challenge. So we’re just trying to build those things into those guys’ games if they can handle it.

“I think Jack is better prepared to handle it. [Kuhlman] is a good player in that regard, so he’s got safety on his right side. [Frederic] is getting there. … This is a little bit of, ‘Hey, this is what you have to do to stay on the ice, stay in the lineup.’ We’ll see where it goes.”

Things could change as early as Wednesday night if Cassidy doesn’t like what he’s seeing from one or more of his lines. There’s also Curtis Lazar’s pending return (which could come Wednesday or Thursday) to factor in. But as long as Cassidy believes Nosek is more deserving of a higher spot in the lineup than Studnicka, don't expect that second-line job to just be handed to the youngster.

UPDATE: It looks like Cassidy may in fact be flipping Nosek and Studnicka for Wednesday night, if the lines at morning skate are any indication:

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