The sights and sounds of another training camp are upon us. The freshly painted ice at Warrior Ice Arena and TD Garden will soon have a full slate of fully vaccinated Bruins players and coaches as they embark on another 82-game slate.
General manager Don Sweeney injected some depth this off-season with a plethora of free-agent signings. A handful of familiar faces also return for another attempt at hoisting Lord Stanley.
But Bruce Cassidy and his coaching staff face some pivotal questions before the Bruins host the Dallas Stars in their regular season opener on Oct. 16. We kick off our list of preseason storylines to watch with the obvious top development.
The competition for second line center
As David Krejci continues his early season roll in his native Czech Republic, the Bruins enter training camp scrambling to fill his vacancy next to Taylor Hall and Craig Smith.
Charlie Coyle enters training camp as the favorite to earn that promotion. He’s coming off a disappointing season, tallying 16 points in 51 games in his usual third-line role.
Coyle provided a steady bottom-six presence during the team’s run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2019. He didn’t look out of place when he found himself on top-six duty at times in the 2019-20 regular season. Yet, the Bruins are better off with a healthy Coyle centering the third line with newcomers Erik Haula and Nick Foligno in the long run.
Quite frankly, the Bruins don’t have many intriguing options to fill Krejci’s gaping void. Haula, Foligno and Tomas Nosek, the other notable free-agent forward addition, all expect to find themselves in bottom-six roles in their new homes. And Coyle won’t join the main group to start camp following off-season knee surgery.
Yet, the Bruins may not slot a veteran in that second-line center role in the long run. Not if Jack Studnicka turns his rigorous off-season training regimen — resulting in 15 lbs. of added muscle — into fruition. The 2017 second-round selection encountered a frustrating 2021 pandemic-shortened season full of injuries and inconsistent play after garnering a solid first impression in Providence the prior year.
The Bruins still have high hopes for Studnicka despite last year’s hiccup. Yet, he enters a pivotal season in his development. And he’ll have a shot to impress in the team’s search for its new second-line center.
How will the defensive pairings look
The Islanders exposed Boston’s back-end depth following postseason injuries to Kevan Miller and Brandon Carlo. The latter returns for another year, anchoring the right side of the second pairing. The former announced his retirement after battling numerous ailments over the past several seasons.
The Bruins added Derek Forbort in free agency to replace the Seattle-bound Jeremy Lauzon. Coming off a solid stint in Winnipeg, Forbort checks some necessary boxes of a depth defenseman: size, strength and penalty-killing prowess. He’ll likely slot in on the third pairing with Connor Clifton and the top penalty kill unit with Carlo. And Cassidy shouldn’t hesitate using Forbort in a third-period shutdown role with either Carlo or Charlie McAvoy.
Cassidy will likely insert a top four of Carlo, McAvoy, Matt Grzelcyk and Mike Reilly — returning to the Bruins on a three-year deal after arriving from Ottawa at the trade deadline. So the only question for defensive roster spots surrounds the seventh and eighth men on the depth chart. John Moore, Uhro Vakkanainen and Jakub Zboril enter the preseason as the favorites for nightly healthy scratches with the big club.
Other than Forbort, the Bruins don’t have to worry too much about sprinkling in back-end newcomers. But they’ll have a new 1-2 duo manning the nets.
The Ullmark/Swayman tandem
Jeremy Swayman and Dan Vladar filled in admirably last season whenever Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak couldn’t suit up. The Bruins shipped Vladar off to Calgary in the off-season and said goodbye to Halak.
With Rask’s future unclear following off-season hip surgery, the Bruins signed former Buffalo Sabre Linus Ullmark to a four-year, $20 million deal. The Sabres hardly resembled any form of a professional hockey club. Still, Ullmark provided a rare bright spot in Buffalo in 2021, sporting a .917 save percentage and 2.63 goals against average in 20 appearances.
The Bruins could revisit Rask’s situation when he’s healed, likely between January and February. But they have a rather unique 1-2 punch to start the year with Ullmark and Swayman. Ullmark hopes to prove that his Buffalo tenure wasn’t fluky — as strange as that sounds — as Swayman aims to build off his stellar 10-game run a year ago. At the very least, the seemingly never-ending hot takes surrounding Rask for the first few months of the new campaign.
The make or break year for Jake DeBrusk
DeBrusk unquestionably endured the worst season of his career. At times, the 2015 first-round pick found himself as a healthy scratch. The injuries, COVID diagnosis, frequent line shuffling, switching from his strong to off-side wing and navigating through the tightened pandemic protocols eventually caught up to the Edmonton-born forward, resulting in a paltry 14 points (5 goals, 9 assists) in 41 games.
With his effort questioned at times, DeBrusk frequently became a visitor to Cassidy’s doghouse. The two sides resumed communications after DeBrusk returned home to Edmonton during the summer.
“He stayed in the Boston area for a while, then went back to Edmonton. We had a good talk about some of the things that didn’t allow him to be at the top of his game [because of everything] away from the rink. Some people, with the COVID protocols, it affects people differently what they can and can’t do. Jake was one of those guys that being by himself was a little bit tougher on him,” Cassidy said of his discussion with DeBrusk.
“We discussed some of those things and how we can help as a staff, how it was probably on both of us to reach out a little more. I think in today’s game, with today’s athlete, there has to be a bit more than that, and so I think we both held ourselves accountable in that regard, opened the lines of communication better. That may bleed into the on-ice performance, and it will take care of itself.”
Luckily for the fully vaccinated DeBrusk, he’ll encounter fewer COVID restrictions this season. This will undoubtedly help him breathe a little easier, returning to a somewhat normal routine off the ice.
After a summer full of trade rumors and uncertainty, DeBrusk enters a pivotal year with the organization. Barring injuries, he’ll settle into a bottom-six role, ideally at left wing. The Bruins need some secondary scoring from DeBrusk. Finding his name on the score sheet or simply creating havoc through an aggressive puck pursuit in all three zones will help make DeBrusk a trustworthy asset with Boston’s coaching staff.
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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