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The Boston Bruins are set to embark on a unique 2021 season, starting with their first training camp session on Monday.
Boston’s coaching staff and front office will have their hands full trying to fill some of the handful of open roster spots, including the pair of defensive vacancies following Torey Krug and Zdeno Chara‘s departures.
They’ll have one question answered when the Bruins — in all likelihood — hand the captaincy over to Patrice Bergeron. They have bigger needs to answer between now and the end of the 56-game regular season.
Some of those answers won’t come right away. Yet, Bruce Cassidy, Don Sweeney and company have their work cut out for them. Here’s a look at four of the biggest question marks facing the Bruins entering training camp.
Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo solidify the top-four on the right side of the blue-line. Matt Grzelcyk becomes the elder statesmen on the left side with Krug and Chara’s exits.
A handful of young defensemen will fight for the three remaining spots on the back end. With a chunk of NHL games under their belts, both Jeremy Lauzon and Connor Clifton have a leg up over a pair of inexperienced first round selections in Urho Vaakaninen and Jakub Zboril. Veterans Kevan Miller, who hasn’t skated in a regular season matchup in nearly two calendar years, and John Moore, who had his share of ups and downs since arriving in Boston in 2018, hope to overcome adversity to earn their opening night roster spots.
Even with Chara’s decline in production, the Bruins had a stable blue-line the past few years. Krug’s offensive production added another dynamic to their well-rounded defense core. Now they’ll need all hands on deck to overcome those departures.
“They have to rise up and take that challenge,” Sweeney said during last week’s Zoom call with the media. “Some of them have been sitting, percolating, as we say, in the development process and playing all those key integrated minutes in Providence and getting opportunities up here, but being sheltered at times. And they’re hopefully ready to take that ball and run with it.”
The Bruins faced challenges with their inexperienced blue-line before. The development of McAvoy, Grzelcyk and Carlo into bonafide NHLers provided a needed injection of speed, size and skill over the past few seasons.
Cassidy’s bunch will lean heavily on the aforementioned trio to ease the burden for the next crop of young defensemen fighting for a roster spot. But, the Bruins may have another injection or two of youth up front.
Brad Marchand’s progression following off-season surgery for a sports hernia gave the Bruins some much-needed good news. The veteran winger is on target to make his season debut on opening night (Jan. 14 in New Jersey).
Marchand’s arrival at camp means the Bruins will have one, maybe two open spots among their 12 forwards. Cassidy and company have a decent crop to choose from with Jack Studnicka and Trent Frederic as the two best options.
Studnicka, arguably the team’s top prospect, thrived during his first professional season in Providence. The 2017 second-rounder didn’t look out of place during his short time in Boston, tallying an assist in two regular-season games. He also showcased some versatility during the modified postseason, suiting up at wing at times during his five games in the Toronto bubble.
Frederic, the second of Boston’s 2016 first rounders — along with McAvoy — also suited up for a pair of games last season to go along with his 15 appearances in 2018-19. He’s yet to tally a single point in 17 career NHL tilts, but the Bruins could use some added muscle after the Stanley Cup champion Lightning physically wore them out in Round 2. The former Wisconsin Badger showcased his physical prowess consistently in Providence and in spurts during his stints in Boston.
With everyone healthy, Studnicka and Frederic could see themselves earning bottom-six minutes. With a good camp, Studnicka could find himself with Jake DeBrusk and David Krejci on the second line if the Bruins decide to slot him at wing to start the year.
While Marchand appears ready to go, the Bruins will have a temporary search for another top-line winger as David Pastrnak recovers from his off-season hip operation.
The Bruins signed four-time 20-goal scorer Craig Smith to help bolster their even-strength scoring production. With five career 20-goal seasons under his belt, the former Nashville Predator hopes to help the secondary scoring department in the long-term. Perhaps Cassidy sees a short-term benefit putting a veteran presence like Smith with Marchand and Bergeron in the interim.
Anders Bjork had his most productive season since leaving Notre Dame, tallying 19 points in 58 games, mostly on third-line duty. Yet, the Bruins, at one point, envisioned Bjork skating alongside Marchand and Bergeron. With added confidence, Bjork could find himself vying for at least top-six minutes in the short-term.
Charlie Coyle’s versatility provided stability in the bottom-six after returning home from Minnesota at the trade deadline two years prior. The Weymouth-born forward provided a top-six spark at times when injuries or inconsistent scoring caught up to the Bruins. Ideally, Coyle would anchor the third line, but if there’s ever a time for him to provide a spark in a top-line role its now.
Then there’s Ondrej Kase, one of the acquisitions from Anaheim — along with Nick Ritchie — from last year’s trade deadline. The Bruins still have high hopes for the 25-year-old, yet he rarely provided production during his first brief go-around, tallying a mere four assists in 11 postseason tilts.
Yes, Kase loves to shoot the puck and keep the D on their toes, but he’ll need to hit the scoresheet on a more consistent basis if the Bruins want to go far in 2021. Ideally, he’d fit right in with Krejci and DeBrusk, and I can’t see Cassidy trying to break this trio up for now. But maybe a stint with Bergeron and Marchand could provide Kase with a needed confidence boost.
Somehow, Tuukka Rask remains a polarizing figure. And a few of his detractors had a field day when Boston’s all-time winningest goaltender opted to exit the Toronto bubble to attend to his ailing daughter.
Rask may have only one more chance to silence his critics. He enters a pivotal moment of his career on the final year of his $7 million per year contract.
The Finn, coming off one of the better seasons of his Boston tenure (26-8-6, 2.12 GAA, .929 SV%), turns 34 in March. He’ll once again share duties with Jaroslav Halak barring injury or other unforeseen developments.
Yet, another deep playoff run may ride on Rask. He benefited from a strong defense core the past few years and stole a game or two when needed. With several question marks on the back end heading into 2021, the Bruins may need their longtime stalwart to bail them out more often than not in order to start another long playoff journey.
After all, they don’t have much time left to win another Cup with the four remaining members — Rask, Bergeron, Marchand and Krejci — from their 2011 squad.
Tim Rosenthal serves as the Managing Editor of Bruins Daily. He started contributing videos to the site in 2010 before fully coming on board during the Bruins' Stanley Cup run in 2011. His bylines over the last decade have been featured on Boston.com, FoxSports.com, College Hockey News, Patch and Inside Hockey. You can follow Tim on Twitter @_TimRosenthal.
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