Tuneup season officially came to a close Saturday night. Now the Bruins can look ahead to their opening night matchup against the Washington Capitals on Wednesday.
Yet, Boston’s roster isn’t quite set in stone ahead. The B’s season-opening lineup could look slightly different if Taylor Hall (upper-body) resumes taking contact early this week.
Bruins general manager Don Sweeney will eventually need to shed salary cap space once Brad Marchand, Charlie McAvoy and Matt Grzelcyk return. Perhaps he’ll get a head start on that with the final roster decisions to start the 2022-23 campaign through the trade market or by waivers.
Amid the overlaying developments, a handful of players had a productive preseason in their quest to capture one of the open roster spots. Barring any changes with Hall’s status, here’s a look at the Bruins’ projected opening night lineup.
Nick Foligno-Patrice Bergeron-Jake DeBrusk
Ideally, Hall would fit here or with David Krejci and David Pastrnak. With his uncertain status, the Bruins must find the next man up.
Foligno showcased strides during the preseason. Jim Montgomery and the coaching staff hope Foligno has that bounce-back season in a bottom-six role. For now, they’re trying him in a top-six role, and perhaps the former Blue Jacket receives the Bergeron rub to start the year.
DeBrusk has picked up where he left off from his hot end to the 2022-23 campaign. He’s feeling more comfortable playing on his off-wing, which will significantly benefit the Bruins once their top-line left winger returns, perhaps around Thanksgiving time.
Pavel Zacha-David Krejci-David Pastrnak
Zacha started camp with Bergeron and DeBrusk before Hall’s injury. But a change born out of necessity may provide a longer-term impact than anticipated.
The Czech trio showcased unparalleled chemistry in their first game together Wednesday in New York, combining for three goals and six assists. Pastrnak added another tally in Saturday’s dress rehearsal against the Devils off a Krejci feed during a second-period power play.
Krejci’s return undoubtedly gives the Bruins more firepower in their top two lines. Unlike most of Cassidy’s tenure, the Bruins will have a formidable top-six, with Pastrnak and Krejci anchoring the second line.
Perhaps Hall will return to this spot when healthy. For now, the Bruins should run with Zacha, Krejci, and Pastrnak on Line 2.
Trent Frederic-Charlie Coyle-Craig Smith
This is where the Bruins get some lineup carryover from the end of the Cassidy era.
Smith and Frederic both struggled with inconsistent play a year ago. Coyle had a decent 2021-22 campaign from an injury-plagued 2021 pandemic-shortened season, but the Bruins need a little more production from their third-line centerman.
This isn’t necessarily a long-term option. Frederic hardly showcased any offensive improvement during his time with the big club. On top of that, the heavy-handed and edgy power forward found himself on the other end of the fine line with ill-timed penalties. Similar performances from Frederic this year may force the Bruins’ hand.
Smith enters the final year of his three-year contract. The Bruins could get some value for Smith on the trade market. But they likely prefer keeping another bottom-six veteran — who tends to score in bunches — over some of the talented, yet unproven younger players in the system like Fabian Lysell and John Beecher.
A.J. Greer-Jack Studnicka-Chris Wagner
Marc McLaughlin’s assignment to Providence came as a bit of a surprise on Thursday, but his waivers exempt status essentially made him a camp casualty. The former Boston College Eagle picked up where he left off from his late-season run during the preseason and played himself into a favorite as one of the first callups.
Unlike McLaughlin, the Bruins have a handful of fourth-line candidates that aren’t exempt from waivers. And there’s one that they can ill afford to lose in Studnicka, given the thin center options within the pipeline to replace Bergeron and Krejci once their careers end.s
The skilled Studnicka doesn’t necessarily fit the fourth-line mold typically reserved for blue-collar players. But his speed and offensive touch would provide a unique look in the middle of the checking line, even with a pair of high-energy wingers.
Ideally, the Bruins want Studnicka to become more assertive on pucks and withstand more physicality in front of the net. At the very least, he’s showcased some perseverance after getting knocked down a couple of times Wednesday against the Rangers in another sign of progress.
That leaves Jakub Lauko and Wagner for the final winger spot. Lauko can report to Providence without clearing waivers.
Wagner persevered through clearing waivers a year ago, becoming a leader in Providence and earning a call-up at the end of last year ahead of the postseason. The Walpole native showcased poise and strength with consistent preseason performances to earn his stripes.
Tomas Nosek essentially becomes the 13th forward. He hasn’t produced a goal since Jan. 2 in Detroit but remained a steady presence on the penalty kill. Because of that, he’ll likely find himself in the Boston lineup more often than not. But Studnicka’s camp effort warrants an opening night spot.
Hampus Lindholm-Mike Reilly
Evaluating talent and installing an up-tempo defensive system became Montgomery’s primary goals in his first year at the helm. The six blue-liners will need time beyond the preseason to acclimate themselves to a quick-tempo transitioning philosophy under the former Dallas Stars and University of Denver coach.
Of all the options, Lindholm will probably take the least amount of time to adjust to the new defensive approach. The new coaching staff will lean on the former Anaheim Duck to log heavy minutes as McAvoy and Grzelcyk continue to heal.
The Bruins could still go with a heavy approach partnering Lindholm with Brandon Carlo on the top pair. But perhaps they’ll go with an offensive-minded puck mover after watching the Lindholm-Reilly pairing in Saturday’s preseason finale.
Granted, the rest of the pairs may not provide as much balance. But of all the options, a fully-healthy Reilly could benefit the most from a new coach encouraging him to use his puck-moving traits to his advantage. At the very least, it may up his trade value, given the Bruins’ salary cap situation.
Derek Forbort-Brandon Carlo
For a good chunk of last season, Forbort and Derek Forbort found themselves under scrutiny from a passionate Boston fanbase. Each defensive miscue and communication blunder became magnified with every goal against they allowed on the third pairing. They again encountered blunders in Saturday’s preseason finale against the Devils, including a missed assignment on Jack Hughes’ tap-in tally early in the third period.
In other instances, Forbort and Clifton held their own, including in Boston’s first-round matchup against Carolina. Yet, the Bruins likely don’t want to endure another season with an inconsistent pair, even if they showcased stability under immense pressure.
Forbort’s penalty kill prowess makes him a longer-term candidate over Clifton and his energetic but uneven traits. The veteran formed a decent bond with Carlo as a shorthanded defensive pair, so why not try to make this pairing a thing to start the year?
Carlo’s well-documented slump and disgruntlement under Bruce Cassidy arguably led to the worst year of his career. He became more prone to turnovers and, at times, became more of a liability than an asset in 2021-22.
At his peak, Carlo became a reliable shut-down defender. Under Montgomery to get more offense out of Carlo beyond his 15-point campaign a year ago without sacrificing his strengths. The Bruins need more point production from the blue line, and even the slightest offensive improvement for Carlo will prove beneficial.
Jakub Zboril-Anton Stralman
Zboril came into camp hoping to build off a productive 10-game run with the big club before sustaining a season-ending torn ACL last November. At the start of camp, the Czech showcased his production in the transition game and hardly looked out of place in his own end.
The ebbs and flows caught up to Zboril at camp’s end. He was prone to turnovers and missed assignments in front of the net.
Zboril will encounter similar off nights during a long 82-game slate. His response to adversity will dictate whether he stays with the big club long-term. Any setback will only add further agony to Sweeney’s flawed track record of drafting and developing.
Putting Zboril with a battle-tested veteran like Anton Stralman will only benefit the 2015 first-round selection. Stralman provided a steady hand in all three zones throughout camp after signing his PTO.
With the benefit of LTIR, the Bruins can likely fit Stralman under the cap, assuming they offer the Swede a contract. Ideally, Stralman stays in a third-pair role once Grzelcyk and McAvoy enter the fold.
Linus Ullmark Jeremy Swayman
Ullmark outperformed Swayman during Boston’s exhibition slate. The former Sabre will likely have the upper hand in terms of opening night starter.
But don’t expect Montgomery to deviate from his plans for the tandem’s workload this year. The Bruins will have their share of three-game-in-four-night stretches, beginning on Oct. 15 with their first two home games (against Arizona and Florida) and their second road tilt of the year (at Ottawa).
As the Bruins navigate through some uncertainty to start the year, they know at least one thing will remain true. The trademark Ullmark-Swayman embrace will again be front and center after every Boston victory.
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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