The Boston Bruins began their abbreviated training camp on Monday. They haven’t had a full week to fully evaluate their roster, but they have most of the pieces in place ahead of Thursday’s season opener in New Jersey.
Bruce Cassidy’s squad faces significant challenges on the back end with Torey Krug and Zdeno Chara departing for St. Louis and Washington, respectively. The fifth-year Boston bench-boss reported some encouraging signs of some of the young defensemen’s efforts, including Urho Vaakaninen and Jakub Zboril, following the two scrimmages on Thursday and Friday.
Up front, the Bruins don’t have as many question marks. David Pastrnak won’t be suiting up until February, but a young and up and comer — Jack Studnicka — will have his shot to burst onto the scene in a significant role.
We’ll take a look at which projected youngsters will make the opening night lineup. Here’s a breakdown outlooking the 20-man roster and taxi squad.
Line 1: Brad Marchand-Patrice Bergeron-Jack Studnicka
The Bruins got a sigh of relief with Marchand’s recovery from a sports hernia. Though he’s had some limitations at camp, Marchand appears ready to take his usual spot to the left of newly appointed captain Patrice Bergeron come Thursday.
Studnicka will start the season at wing. The Bruins would like to see him at his traditional center spot at some point, but what if Studnicka shines with Pastrnak on the shelf?
Perhaps Cassidy would keep him at wing in that scenario giving him more flexibility in the top six. Then they could either reunite Pastrnak with Marchand and Bergeron or balance things out with Studnicka staying on the top line with the crafty Czech skating with David Krejci and Jake DeBrusk.
Line 2: Jake DeBrusk-David Krejci-Ondrej Kase
The Bruins acquired Kase from Anaheim hoping to finally solve their revolving door on the second line. The initial results weren’t promising thanks to an injury setback, and a disappointing outing in the postseason bubble.
But Kase would’ve likely started the season with Krejci and Jake DeBrusk with or without Pastrnak. He’ll have a couple of weeks to prove he’s a viable top-six option with DeBrusk — fresh off signing a new two-year contract — and Krejci.
The Bruins can’t go another season without filling the right-wing need on the second line. But even if he isn’t a long-term answer, Kase can give Cassidy some another dose of lineup flexibility with a bounce-back performance.
Line 3: Nick Ritchie-Charlie Coyle-Craig Smith
Coyle found initial success skating with Marcus Johansson and Danton Heinen after coming over from Minnesota at the 2019 trade deadline period. The former signed with Buffalo the ensuing offseason. The latter went to Anaheim last February.
The return for Heinen? Nick Ritchie, who, like Kase, hardly provided a spark upon his arrival. His ejection from Game 3 of the Tampa series provided another head-scratching moment for Bruins fans used to disappointing transactions by GM Don Sweeney.
From all accounts, Ritchie hasn’t looked all that bad at camp. After being manhandled by the Lightning last year, the Bruins need all the physicality they can get from the 6-foot-2 230-pound forward.
Craig Smith’s arrival from Nashville provides the Bruins another secondary scorer. The Bruins struggled at even strength scoring and Smith, a five-time 20-goal scorer, seems comfortable skating with Coyle. Both Coyle and Smith provide strong puck possession statistics, which should only benefit the top checking line.
Line 4: Anders Bjork-Sean Kuraly-Chris Wagner
Bjork’s chemistry with Coyle paved the way for a bounce-back season. He may very well see himself reuniting with Coyle, but Cassidy will try to balance things out in his bottom-six sticking him with Kuraly and Wagner.
Trent Frederic provides another fourth-line option in the short and long term. He rotated shifts with Bjork during Sunday’s practice. I could see that rotation with Frederic and Bjork playing out in the short-term as both hope to become mainstays in Boston. Cassidy’s nightly decision in the Bjork-Frederic debate will come down to a skill vs physicality argument.
D-Pair 1: Jeremy Lauzon-Charlie McAvoy
He didn’t have a sharp decline during his final years in Boston, but make no mistake, Chara isn’t a top-pair defenseman anymore. Yet, the Bruins will still miss his presence both on and off the ice.
And they know it will take all hands on deck to fill Chara’s giant vacancy (no pun intended).
Add Krug’s departure and you have more minutes to go around among the six blue-liners. The Bruins will rely heavily on McAvoy to eat up those valuable minutes. Finding his first full-time defensive partner in the post-Chara era remains a challenge.
Lauzon, with 35 career NHL games under his belt, will get the first crack. The 6-foot-1 Quebec-born defenseman is mostly a stay-at-home blueliner, but isn’t shy jumping in on transition when needed.
Regardless, McAvoy will have a speedier defensive partner entering his fourth NHL season. Yet, the last thing the Bruins need is a rotating door on the top pair in their first year without Chara.
D-Pair 2: Matt Grzelcyk-Brandon Carlo
Krug and Carlo’s chemistry provided the back end with a proverbial Beauty and the Beast type of dynamic. One blue-liner dazed and dazzled with his offensive skillset. The other excelled at the dirty work with a steady net-front presence with a bruising approach to puck possession battles along the boards.
Grzelcyk isn’t a carbon copy of Krug, but the former BU defensemen shares much of the same traits. Thus, the now elder statesman on the left-side of the blue-line will hope to duplicate — or come close to — Krug’s dynamic with Carlo.
For those looking for a Grzelcyk-McAvoy pairing, you may not have to wait too long. When the Bruins needed a timely goal late in the game, Cassidy used Krug and McAvoy to help generate some last minute offense. Whether he does the same with Grzelcyk and McAvoy is anyone’s guess, but it’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility.
D-Pair 3: Jakub Zboril-Kevan Miller
Say what you want about Kevan Miller making more money than Zdeno Chara in 2021. Make no mistake, though, Miller worked his tail off following a pair of injury-plagued seasons. It’s about to pay off come Thursday as he’ll suit up for his first game since April 2019 in all likelihood.
On the left side, Jakub Zboril enters a make or break year. The 2015 first rounder only has a mere two NHL games under his belt. Zboril loves to move the puck in transition, but his play in the defensive end needs work. He may earn some secondary power play minutes, but Zboril won’t move up the depth chart until he rounds out his game.
Cassidy praised Zboril following Thursday’s scrimmage. He has Miller to help him through the NHL grind. Zboril may have something to build on following a solid camp, but with Krug and Chara now out, the Bruins need consistency from the Czech-born blue-liner. Otherwise, Sweeney will strike out on two of his three selections from the 2015 first-round trio.
Goalies: Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak
With Rask returning after departing the Toronto bubble, the Bruins have their dynamic goaltending tandem intact for the third straight season.
Taxi squad: Karson Kuhlman, John Moore, Conor Clifton, Trent Frederic, Dan Vladar and Par Lindholm
The Bruins may want Frederic to start the year in Providence. They may need him in Boston sooner than later. Because of this, he’ll likely wait it out with the big club.
Moore and Clifton were the de facto fourth pair on Sunday’s line chart. Kuhlman and Lindholm provided short-term sparks in the past, but both struggled with long-term consistency.
Vladar becomes the top option in net assuming the Bruins as a de facto third goalie. At least Vladar will have some practice time with the big club, but you wonder if they try to get some seasoning for him with a start or two first and not in an under-fire relief role.
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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