By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
Believe it or not, the Boston Bruins are exactly one week away from the start of the 2018-19 season.
And though they’re going through some health issues, the Black and Gold look just about ready, with wins in all but one of their six preseason tilts to date. (Oh, and their one loss was in overtime).
But with a camp cut down to 22 forwards and 10 defensemen, there’s almost nothing set in stone.
Here are the seven biggest questions still facing Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy’s squad as they head into the home stretch of their entirely-too-long preseason slate…
1. Is Patrice Bergeron going to be ready for Opening Night?
This is the question you’ve asked yourself in back-to-back preseasons (and with the answer ultimately turning up no on both occasions), and it turns out 2018’s training camp is no different.
Limited throughout camp due to offseason groin surgery — and with back spasms that popped up as a result of his rehabilitation process — Bergeron is still hoping to play in Boston’s preseason finale this Saturday and be ready to go when the Bruins drop the puck on the 2018-19 season.
Where that goes is honestly anybody’s guess, and the B’s would be smart to take their time with a center whose importance to the Boston forward corps is legitimately unmatched, even at 33 years old.
One sneaky thing to consider here: The Bruins no longer have admirable Bergeron stand-in, Riley Nash, on their roster, meaning sliding somebody into No. 37’s spot may not go over as well as it did a year ago.
The one positive you could take from a potential Bergeron absence that bleeds into the regular season? The Bruins could give Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, Trent Frederic, and/or Jack Studnicka (more on them in a bit) a real look in games that matter and against competition stiffer than any preseason lineup.
2. David Krejci’s right: Danton Heinen or Ryan Donato?
Excluded from the B’s trip to China due to visa issues, David Krejci stayed in Boston and began his preseason with Danton Heinen to his right. Ryan Donato, meanwhile, played on the opposite wing of Jake DeBrusk during the Bruins’ two-game preseason trip through China. Both had their promise, as DeBrusk and Donato developed undeniable, shot-heavy chemistry in the offensive zone while the Krejci-Heinen combination looked like a puck-possession dream in their first showing of the preseason.
They should be considered to be in a neck-and-neck battle for the B’s vacant second line right wing job.
Fortunately for Krejci and the Bruins, the team has history with both options on the right.
Heinen had 22:19 of five-on-five action with the DeBrusk-Krejci combo a season ago. With Heinen on the right, the line controlled possession at 53.3 percent, were outshot 12-11, but generated 14 scoring chances and surrendered just nine. They were on the ice for one goal for, and surrendered just one goal against.
The DeBrusk-Krejci-Donato trio, meanwhile, played 31:07 of five-on-five action together last season. That group controlled possession at 48.4 percent and were outshot 24-16, but generated 19 scoring chances compared to 15 against, and outscored the opposition 4-2.
3. How do the Bruins handle the left side of their third (second second) pairing?
The Bruins are in an extremely weird spot when it comes to their defensive pairings.
The Zdeno Chara-Charlie McAvoy pairing is a lock to be Boston’s No. 1 pairing for the second year in a row, and Cassidy seems locked into the idea of keeping Torey Krug and Brandon Carlo together. That means that there’s essentially just one spot to be determined, and that’s to Kevan Miller’s left.
That battle is obviously down to Matt Grzelcyk and free agent addition John Moore.
Now, believe it or not, the Grzelcyk-Miller pairing was one of the best in the entire league last year. Their even-strength goal differential was the eighth-best among all NHL pairings, and their possession metric ranked as the 13th-best among any pairing with at least 500 minutes of even-strength action together.
There’s also no reason for Grzelcyk to lose his job and sit as a healthy scratch on Oct. 3.
But the Bruins just signed Moore to a five-year deal worth $13.75 million in total. After swinging out on Ilya Kovalchuk and John Tavares, the Bruins made Moore their top target. So, ask yourself: Do the Bruins really want to begin Moore’s run in Boston with him sitting as a healthy scratch? This is an absolutely acknowledged stupid ‘optics’ way of looking at it, but I do think there’s some truth to it.
Boston believed Moore fit a need and made him a priority on July 1, so he seems like an automatic in.
Maybe they both catch a break and Krug, expected to make his preseason debut Wednesday night against the Red Wings after a lengthy recovery from a broken ankle suffered in May, starts the year on the shelf.
4. Anders Bjork should probably begin his year in Providence, right?
The Bruins are down to just two preseason games and Anders Bjork has yet to play a game.
On the road back from shoulder surgery, the Bruins shouldn’t feel any real need to rush Bjork back into the picture and force him into an NHL role just because. In fact, beginning his year with a top-six forward role in Providence (which is something the Bruins alluded to back in May) instead of fighting for bottom-six minutes in Boston may be in the best interest of Bjork’s long-term development track.
(Also: You know if Bjork plays like he should, there’s no way he’s riding buses in the AHL for long.)
5. Forsbacka Karlsson or Frederic on Line 3?
I have long handicapped the battle for the Bruins’ vacant third-line center job in Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson’s favor. I think JFK’s usage in Monday’s win over Philadelphia spoke to Cassidy’s desire to truly get him ready for the competition he’ll go against on a regular basis if he does indeed make the team.
But I think Monday actually saw first-year pro Trent Frederic close the gap, as Frederic provided the Bruins with some key faceoff wins, and is clearly getting more comfortable with competing on NHL ice.
I may sound crazy, and I could be wrong by tomorrow, but I’m not so sure that this race is over.
6. Do the Bruins suck it up and sign Lee Stempniak?
This will be Bruins general manager Don Sweeney’s fourth season on the job. And in case you’re wondering, here’s how his deadlines have gone: Veteran winger help (Lee Stempniak), veteran winger help (Drew Stafford), veteran winger help (Rick Nash), and depth forward help (Tommy Wingels). In acquiring these assets, Sweeney has parted with a total of nine assets (six draft picks, three players).
Now, the 35-year-old Stempniak is back with the Bruins on a professional tryout, and is essentially giving Sweeney a five-month head start on their search for additional depth. For just (short) cash, too.
With one goal and five points through three preseason games — and with Stempniak’s best game coming against an NHLer-heavy Philadelphia squad on Monday — it’s getting harder to imagine a better fit as the Bruins’ 13th or 14th forward out of gate than the dependable and versatile Stempniak.
7. Can Jack Studnicka earn an extended look?
The Bruins are down to ‘one big group,’ and the 19-year-old Studnicka is still kicking around.
But for Studnicka to stick, it’ll have to be in the NHL or it’s back to juniors for the teenager. This is something the Bruins haven’t really experimented with in over five years now. Milan Lucic was given such a chance and straight-up ran with it back in 2007, Tyler Seguin ‘shocked’ everybody when he stuck with the team in 2010, and Dougie Hamilton waited and waited until 2013.
If Bergeron’s injured to begin the year as previously mentioned, the chances of Studnicka getting such a chance with Cassidy’s team — be it as a center or winger — increase. Even if it’s just slightly.