For the first time in 110 days, the Boston Bruins had winger Ondrej Kase back at practice on Friday. Kase suffered a concussion in just the second game of the season back on January 18, at least the fourth of his pro career, and had been unable to return to team activities ever since. There have been various reports for months about Kase skating, both independently and with the team, but he had never formally returned to practice. That changed yesterday, as the team reported that Kase was a full participant and taking line rushes. Head coach Bruce Cassidy addressed the excitement over Kase’s return by noting that Kase would not play on Saturday, but could return to the lineup in one or both of the Bruins final games on Monday and Tuesday – if he was feeling up to it.
Of course, expectations should be tempered for Kase’s return to game action after so much missed time. On talent alone, Kase likely has a spot in the lineup, even in the Bruins deep forward corps, but it will take him some time to get back up to speed. The former Anaheim Ducks standout was acquired last year in a deal that saw a first-round pick and promising prospect defenseman Axel Andersson head to Anaheim, so expectations have always been high for the 25-year-old forward. However, after missing eight games down the stretch and two in the playoffs last year due to injury (unrelated to concussions) and most of this season, Boston has still not seen much of Kase and may not rush him into the lineup. Playing in the final regular seasons games is a good start, but may not guarantee him a spot to begin the playoffs.
With that said, Kase did record four points in the postseason last year while showing chemistry with center David Krejci and playing top-six minutes for the Bruins through the team’s playoff run. While a spot next to Krejci may not be available right now, given the recent success that the veteran has had with Taylor Hall and Craig Smith, Kase could provide a spark to a third line that has not had as much luck. Kase split reps in practice on Friday at third-line right wing, skating with Sean Kuraly, Nick Ritchie, and Jake DeBrusk. Charlie Coyle will also be back in the third line mix when he returns from his own injury. With all but Coyle having spent time on the fourth line at times this season, Kase could prove himself worthy of a third line role thus knocking one of the others down the lineup. While injuries have prevented Kase from playing more than 66 games in any of his five NHL seasons, his 82-game pace during his time in Anaheim projected 20+ goals and 40 points while his posession stats have been consistently strong, numbers the Bruins can’t ignore for long if Kase is at full strength.
The Bruins face a series of difficult decisions this off-season regarding Kase and will certainly appreciate some added action this season with which to make their determination. A restricted free agent, Kase is owed a $2.6MM qualifying offer in order for Boston to retain his rights. While the club does not have the same serious salary cap issues as many other contenders, that is a sizeable amount of space to commit to a player that still remains such a mystery. If the Bruins do decide to qualify Kase, which is probably more likely than not, the next question will be how negotiations go from there. Does Kase accept his QO as a “show me” deal in 2021-22? Do the two sides discuss a multi-year extension, perhaps even at a lower AAV? Or does Kase instead file for salary arbitration and try go get more money based on his potential? The Bruins must also decide if Kase’s upside is worth protecting from the Seattle Kraken in the upcoming NHL Expansion Draft or if they can take the risk of the league’s newest team not selecting a player with an extensive injury history. There are more questions than answers when it comes to Kase, but both sides hope that his return to practice and possibly game action could lead to some playoff impact that helps to clarify the situation and lead to an extension in their relationship.