The decisions that come with an ideal and healthy Bruins lineup
Over the past few weeks, the Bruins are slowly, but surely getting closer to a clean bill of health. In that span – starting with David Krejci’s return in Los Angeles – Bruce Cassidy and company have won six of seven.
The extensive list of injuries included Krejci (upper body), David Backes (colon surgery), Brad Marchand (undisclosed), Anders Bjork (undisclosed), Ryan Spooner (groin), Adam McQuaid (broken right fibula), Peter Cehlarik (lower body) and most recently Jake DeBrusk (upper body). All but two appeared in at least one game last week – against the Lightning and Flyers – with McQuaid, Cehlarik and DeBrusk being the only holdovers.
For a team that had a list of injuries longer than an instruction manual for the board game Operation, the Bruins could have easily succumbed to the early season adversity. Instead, they find themselves within striking distance of a playoff spot while getting closer to having their ideal lineup intact.
“Speaking of injuries, we didn’t have any tonight,” Cassidy joked following Wednesday’s 3-2 win over the Lighting. “So we’ll have 10 extra minutes tonight to talk about the game.”
Indeed, Cassidy had some extra time to talk about that win over the Bolts at TD Garden, as well as Saturday’s 3-0 triumph in Philadelphia.
With that in mind, there’s some extra time to discuss the decisions ahead for Cassidy and GM Don Sweeney should the Black and Gold remain healthy before DeBrusk and McQuaid – the two closest players to returning – are activated from injured reserve.
What to do with Matt Grzelcyk
With Torey Krug missing to start the three-game trip to California, the Bruins were missing a puck mover on their blue-line. Rob O’Gara was sent back to Providence following their swing to California. Matt Grzelcyk, a comparable replacement to Krug, was recalled to join the Black and Gold in New Jersey.
In the five games since, Grzelcyk has a goal and an assist and tallied more than 10 minutes of ice time in all but one of his appearances. The former Boston University captain has seen time on the second power-play unit – manning the point with fellow ex-Terrier Charlie McAvoy – and solidified his spot in the lineup upon some of the injured players returning.
Once McQuaid returns, the Bruins will have eight defensemen on their 23-man roster. Unless Cassidy uses seven D in his lineup, or Sweeney puts one of Matt Beleskey, Frank Vatrano or Paul Postma (more on them in a bit) on waivers, Grzelcyk will likely be sent back to Providence.
Assuming he continues his solid play back at the AHL level, Grzelcyk will have a chance to become a regular at the NHL level. He’s shown progress from Year 1 to Year 2 and there’s no doubt he’ll have another opportunity with the big club down the road.
Who is the odd man out up front?
This is where the thought process becomes tricky.
Looking at Saturday’s lineup against the Flyers, the Bruins can make a case to keep each of their 12 forwards. That is until DeBrusk returns.
Had Ryan Spooner not been as productive in his last two games, Cassidy could have made him the odd man out. The veteran, who has a goal and an assist in that span, gives the Bruins some versatility at center and wing and is still quite productive on the first power-play unit. He’s making the case to stay right now.
Meanwhile, Danton Heinen has been productive in whatever role that Cassidy gives him. Bjork has top-six potential but is coming back from injury. Sean Kuraly has become a key cog in the Bruins’ bottom six.
DeBrusk was playing some of his best hockey of the season in the aftermath of his first career healthy scratch back on November 11. The 2015 first rounder averaged exactly one point per game in his six contests prior to his injury.
Sweeney could always punt and give DeBrusk a conditioning assignment in Providence once he returns. The likely move is to send either Kuraly, Heinen or Bjork down I-95 South, or put someone on waivers.
The healthy scratches from Saturday
Heading into training camp, Beleskey and Vatrano were hoping to hold off some of the competition from the Bruins’ youth movement. Coming off disappointing campaigns in 2016-17, the bottom-six duo haven’t shown much improvement whenever they’ve been inserted into the lineup.
Nor has Postma, who signed a one-year deal in the off-season. But the former Winnipeg Jet was slated to be the B’s seventh defenseman and it’s hard to see Sweeney giving up on Postma two months into the season.
Beleskey and his $3.8 million salary would likely leave him unclaimed on waivers and burying that contract in Providence isn’t ideal. The former Anaheim Duck also has a modified no-trade clause. Sweeney could try to maneuver a trade but with three years left on his contract, it’s unlikely he’ll find any suitors.
Vatrano has one year left on his entry-level deal. The Bruins could try to send him to Providence but the former UMass-Amherst standout must clear waivers. Some team might be willing to take a risk on Vatrano and claim him in hopes of reigniting his potential as a viable secondary scoring option.
Given the choice between a healthy lineup and personnel decisions, it’s safe to say that Cassidy and Sweeney would choose the latter. The tough choices come with the territory of full health, and that is not a bad thing.