By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
Boston Bruins general manager Don Sweeney is as big a believer in the organization’s prospects as one can be.
But one of the things Sweeney loves as much — if not more, really — than the B’s kids? Competition, and competition brought in by way of a professional tryout at that. It’s almost become a staple of his tenure as the Black and Gold’s general manager.
In Sweeney’s previous three Septembers as Boston’s front office boss, he invited four players to camp on professional tryouts. He’s signed — or attempted to sign — all but one of them (Teddy Purcell in 2017); He signed goaltender Jonas Gustavsson to be Tuukka Rask’s backup in 2015, and inked NHL draft lottery pick Peter Mueller to a minor-league deal in 2016. Sweeney also tried to sign late camp invite Christian Ehrhoff during that 2016 training camp, but the veteran defender decided to instead return home to Germany due to the lack of a guarantee when it came to his role and playing time with the Bruins.
So, it’s more than curious to see that 31-year-old depth defenseman Mark Fayne, whose chances of making the already-stacked Boston blue line are about as good as mine or yours, was the only noteworthy name invited to Boston’s main camp this fall. It’s not as if there’s a massive shortage of intriguing options at the forward spot, either. Especially when you consider the losses the Bruins took on a frenetic July 1 that left them wondering just who the hell was left on their NHL roster.
It’s instead simple confirmation that Sweeney is indeed rolling with the idea of a full-on youth movement from his forwards. At the highly-critical third-line center spot that’s entirely up for grabs for the next month at the very least, too.
And with a competition that will kick off with Thursday’s start of rookie camp at Warrior Ice Arena and this weekend’s Prospects Challenge between the Bruins, New Jersey Devils, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Sabres at Buffalo’s Harborcenter.
With bottom-six spinal cord Riley Nash gone to Columbus on a two-year deal the Bruins did not feel like matching, the Bruins have been left in a spot where they’re going from an entirely dependable option at the No. 3 center spot to a complete unknown in a young gun like top forward prospects Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, Trent Frederic, or Jack Studnicka.
All three are (obviously) skating in the aforementioned rookie camp and Prospects Challenge, and all three have already been earmarked by Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy as potential fits for an in-season development role with the Big B’s.
“A lot of these young guys are not ready to play every night,” Cassidy, whose team is coming off a 50-win year, admitted to The Boston Globe’s Matt Porter last month. “We’ve got to get them — and if we’re lucky, that’s where [Patrice Bergeron] and [Zdeno Chara] and the veteran guys will show them how to be a pro. How do you take care of yourself off the ice, conditioning, eating, sleep? And then Donnie and I have had the understanding that there’s going to be growing pains.”
It also helps that the Bruins have essentially surrounded these hopefuls with capable bottom-six forwards; Noel Acciari, David Backes, Sean Kuraly, Joakim Nordstrom, and Chris Wagner are all locked into the third and fourth lines. Those that lose out on the role of riding on the right side of either Patrice Bergeron or David Krejci — there will be two losers of a three-headed battle between Anders Bjork, Ryan Donato, and Danton Heinen — will find themselves looking for a scoring role on the B’s third line.
That’s the kind of depth that comes with versatility out the wazoo, which is what the Bruins undoubtedly lost with the free agent departures of Riley Nash, Tim Schaller, Austin Czarnik, and deadline addition Tommy Wingels (though to a far lesser degree).
In essence, depending on the configuration of Line 3 and Line 4 on any given night, the Bruins could seemingly shift from skill to scoring to speed to grinding to physical without skipping a beat or drastically altering the basis of their team’s strengths. Which also means the Bruins have the depth within this two-line structure to live with growing pains of a Forsbacka Karlsson, Frederic, or Studnicka. They’ll be better off for going through such struggles and lessons, too, as the in-season developments from the likes of Jake DeBrusk, Heinen, and defenseman Matt Grzelcyk spoke to at key moments last season.
The Bruins basically built their entire summer around making sure that these players were embedded in situations that didn’t ask too much of them. But that they were embedded at the very least, and not blocked by expensive free agent signings.
But growing pains do not mean that Sweeney and the Bruins are also willing to sink with such undeveloped talents.
“At some point, if they can’t do it, they can’t do it, and they go down [to the minors],” Cassidy told Porter. “That’s reality. But we were willing to let a couple of blips [happen], work through those. Whereas other coaches might want the more consistent guy, we wanted the guy we feel has more upside, we could bring along, so that in March and April he’s a better player.”
Another important detail to consider here? Cassidy is not going to give an NHL job to a young talent if he’s not going to play. You learned this when the Bruins essentially decided to let younger players such as Czarnik and Peter Cehlarik skate in the minors while Brian Gionta and Wingels sat as the B’s most common healthy scratches. Cassidy is all about developing players, sure, but through on-ice moments, not by skating in (largely optional) morning skates and watching from a press box.
This means that all three players will get extended looks during their two-game trip to China. And well into a preseason that will shift back to the United States for another four post-China preseason head-to-heads before the Oct. 3 opener. In all roles, too, from power play to penalty-killing minutes and d-zone faceoffs. And if Cassidy’s track record has told you anything, it’s that he won’t be afraid to trust his gut and throw his plan out the window if he sees a line-changing spark from one of them.
A competitive spark Cassidy and Sweeney believe is coming off a fresh stick, not by way of the common cost-free invitation.
Ty Anderson is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Ty? Follow him on Twitter @_TyAnderson.