By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
In a training camp that’s felt entirely too long, Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy and general manager Don Sweeney are left with just one final look at what will be the roster that begins the 2018-19 year.
Now, this preseason hasn’t necessarily been full of revelations for the Black and Gold. Your most important players are still your most important players, at least if we look at their usage (or non-usage in the case of some), but that’s not to suggest that everything’s an automatic with this team’s start.
In fact, there seems to be question marks aplenty, even entering the final preseason tilt on Saturday.
Here’s your second stab — one that comes with just a few lineup tweaks — at what the Bruins will ice when their regular season begins Oct. 3 against the Capitals.
The Bruins cut their camp down by another four forwards Friday, and there’s really not a whole lot of surprises in regards to who’s left and their potential to make the Bruins out of camp. You have five of your top six forwards from a season ago, as well as tweeners like Trent Frederic. The injured Anders Bjork is still kicking around, and Lee Stempniak and Daniel Winnik are still in town on PTOs.
First line: Brad Marchand – Patrice Bergeron – David Pastrnak
The Bruins seem set on going with this line out of the gate, and it’s hard to argue with that logic. This line was the best line in all of hockey last season, and there’s no sense in breaking them up until you absolutely have to (if and when David Krejci’s line struggles or when you go against deeper teams).
That same concern from the first projection still looms, however, as Bergeron has yet to play a game this preseason. That’s not expected to change come Saturday’s preseason finale. (If he’s unable to progress in time for Wednesday’s opener, you’d have to think David Backes becomes the Bruins’ de facto No. 1 center for the second season opener in three years.)
Second line: Jake DeBrusk – David Krejci – Danton Heinen
So, this is a new one, but it seems almost likely if we’re playing the odds game.
Jake DeBrusk and Ryan Donato had a pair of games together this preseason, but those came without David Krejci. Krejci, meanwhile, played with Danton Heinen to his right in Boston’s first stateside preseason tilt. Heinen got the call on DeBrusk’s right on Wednesday, and Friday’s practice saw Heinen skate to the right of the DeBrusk-Krejci duo. Give this trio the preseason finale and there’s officially more time with Heinen as Krejci’s right winger — and with DeBrusk — than Donato.
That’s a mouthful, I know, and while it could mean something, it could also mean absolutely nothing.
But, worth noting: DeBrusk-Krejci-Heinen had 22:19 of five-on-five action together last season, controlled possession at 53.3 percent, and though they were outshot 12-11, they generated 14 scoring chances and surrendered just nine. They were on the ice for one goal scored, and just one goal against.
Third line: Ryan Donato – Trent Frederic – David Backes
The 19-year-old Jack Studnicka has been returned to juniors, and theoretical favorite Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson was assigned to Providence on Friday. So, the battle for the Black and Gold’s vacant third-line center spot is down to Trent Frederic and Sean Kuraly. And it’s going down to the wire.
Now, experience certainly favors Kuraly over Frederic here, but I ultimately think that the Bruins are going to realize that Kuraly is too important to the fourth line to throw him into third-line duty. Oh, and I think the appeal of pairing Frederic with his childhood hero (David Backes) is almost too appealing not to try it and see if Frederic brings the best out of Backes and vice versa.
Another change here: Donato moved backed down towards his natural left-wing position, and in a slot in which he could straight-up feast on the competition of third-pairing defenders.
Fourth line: Chris Wagner – Sean Kuraly – Noel Acciari
Sort of your ‘best of the rest’ line, and a true grind-it-out line that certainly seems to fit what Cassidy wants out of his fourth line. Chris Wagner came through with a nice shorthanded breakaway goal in Monday’s road win over the Flyers, and is probably slated to begin the year as the center on your third penalty-killing forward duo. Acciari, meanwhile, looked like himself in his preseason debut this week.
Healthy scratches: Joakim Nordstrom, Lee Stempniak
The sample size on Joakim Nordstrom still isn’t enough for me to picture him jumping right into the mix come Opening Night. That said, his resume in Carolina tells you that he’s still a dependable bottom-sixer whose penalty-killing prowess should be enough to make him the first man in should the B’s continue to rack up penalties like it’s 1978 once the regular season begins next Wednesday.
Screw it — I’m in on Stempniak. First of all, Stempniak’s performance (with the exception of an offensive-zone hooking call in Wednesday’s loss to the Red Wings) is among the best the Bruins have seen this preseason, he should be relatively cheap at 35 years old and after an injury-plagued 2017-18, and embodies the perfect 13th/14th forward if the B’s don’t feel like wasting a younger player in the press box. Also: You know how this goes. If the Bruins let Stempniak walk, they’re still going to be in the market for veteran scoring depth come deadline season. Keep in mind that the Bruins have parted with nine assets to address that exact need during Sweeney’s three deadlines on the job.
And while I understand the idea that the Bruins need youth, youth, and some more youth, if Bjork or somebody like Peter Cehlarik is unable to push Stempniak out of a job, that’s more of a reflection on their struggles — be it in the NHL or with the P-Bruins — than anything else.
The Bruins are down to their seven NHL defensemen and 2017 first-round pick Urho Vaakanainen.
So, not a whole lot of mystery in regards to where the Bruins are going here.
First pairing: Zdeno Chara – Charlie McAvoy
Let me just repeat what I said last week: Together for over 860 even-strength minutes a season ago, the Zdeno Chara and Charlie McAvoy pairing were on the ice for 39 goals for, and just 25 goals against. That plus-14 finished the season as the sixth-best among all NHL pairings. Don’t split it up.
Second pairing: Torey Krug – Brandon Carlo
“I actually thought defending rushes, we did a good job,” Krug said of the pair’s performance on Wednesday. “Sloppy plays with the puck, but that’s to be expected. We’ve got to get on the same level chemistry-wise with the breakouts and the bumps. We don’t want to put each other in bad situations, so you know, we’ll work on it in practice every day. That’s what it’s about.”
Third pairing: John Moore – Kevan Miller
I’m still convinced this will be the B’s Opening Night pairing. I know this reason sounds stupid to some, but I just can’t believe that the Bruins invested in five years of John Moore (and made him their priority signing on July 1) only to begin his Bruins career as a healthy scratch.
Healthy scratch: Matt Grzelcyk
I’m dying to know how this all plays out over the course of an 82-game season, because if Monday’s offensive-zone poise against the Flyers was a sign of things to come for Matt Grzelcyk in 2018-19, then there’s absolutely no reason for this player to sit as a healthy scratch.
Starting goaltender: Tuukka Rask
The Bruins’ attempts to manage Tuukka Rask’s workload now starts in the preseason, it seems, as No. 40 has played just one of Boston’s first seven preseason tilts. Of course, he’s expected to get the call in net when the Bruins conclude the month Saturday at TD Garden.
Ty Anderson is a writer and columnist for 985TheSportsHub.com. He has also been a voting member of the Boston Chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association since 2013. 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.