By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
Finally, the Boston Bruins have kicked the 2018 preseason to the curb.
It was eye-opening, at least in the sense that I didn’t think eight meaningless games could take so long. But it was a camp that seemingly came with its fair share of questions for B’s coach Bruce Cassidy and general manager Don Sweeney, some of which are still largely unanswered just four days from the start of the 2018-19 season.
And with a final round of cuts looming, and Media Day slated for Monday at Warrior Ice Arena, here’s what we do (and do not) know about the Bruins through their first eight glorified scrimmages of the new year…
We do know…
…That Urho Vaakanainen is damn close to being NHL-ready, if he’s not already there.
I thought the 19-year-old showed off everything that made him a first-round pick in 2017, and has the smarts and skill-set that could make him a better version of Brandon Carlo with more, meaningful NHL minutes. In fact, Vaakanainen’s preseason was so impressive that Cassidy outright said he would not have an issue dressing the first-year stateside pro should the B’s injuries on the point force him into action against the Caps on Wednesday.
“He’s been fine, real composed. He’s been doing a real good job,” said Cassidy. “Now, told him in NHL game when things ramp up a little bit it’ll be a different animal, but from what we’ve been able to evaluate he’s been very good.”
…If Jaroslav Halak plays like this in the regular season, the Bruins are going to be more than at peace with their decision to walk away from Anton Khudobin this summer. It’s a small, small, small sample size — and it’s the preseason, of course — but Halak’s two-game run this fall has been more than encouraging. For Halak, it was probably similar to his four-year run on Long Island, as the Bruins hung him out to dry in both games.
Most importantly, the 33-year-old Halak also seems to be less of an ‘adventure’ as his predecessor, particularly when things get uncomfortable in his own end. That can (and will) come in handy should the Bruins have to work to get back to their defensive roots after what was a definite disaster of a preseason in that regard.
…The Bruins are going to be ultra-careful with first line pivot Patrice Bergeron.
Out of action for the entire preseason due to his recovery from offseason groin surgery (and a back spasms issue), the Bruins are hoping for their most important forward to be ready to go by Wednesday. But I think there’s a legitimate chance that the Bruins take their time and rest Bergeron until the team’s home opener the following Monday.
They not only have the bodies for it, but I think the Bruins would happily trade two misses against the Capitals and Sabres if it means Bergeron is ready to go and closer to 100 percent when the schedule really gets going.
… An additional point on that last ‘know?’ We know that Backes can still play a little center if need be. In fact, that may be where the Bruins can maximize Backes’ productivity as a complete player in 2018-19, as they’re loaded on the wings, but short at center. The flip-side of that argument? The Bruins are also short on right-shot right wingers.
… The Bruins may have a solid fourth line brewing with Joakim Nordstrom between Chris Wagner and Noel Acciari.
Together for just under eight minutes in Saturday’s preseason finale, the trio posted a 69.2 possession percentage, and outshot the Flyers 7-4. Nordstrom’s feed to Wagner was actually perhaps the Bruins’ best even-strength scoring opportunity through the first two periods of a 4-1 loss, too. It obviously won’t come that easy for this line most nights, but they provided similar energy and chaotic movement as the Schaller-Kuraly-Acciari line of 2017-18.
“I think we created a bunch of chances,” Wagner acknowledged after the loss. “Made a great play in the first that I didn’t bury, but yeah, we all work hard and [Noel Acciari] works really hard too, so it’s easy to read off each other.
“We kind of keep things simple, so it’s nice.”
We don’t know…
… Just who the hell is going to roll to David Krejci’s right come Opening Night. Now, as documented again and again, the Bruins have had a revolving door of sorts at that spot throughout training camp between second-year NHLer Danton Heinen and fan favorite Ryan Donato. Saturday’s preseason finale saw Cassidy flip Heinen and Donato midway through the game, though neither player seemed to impress the Bruins bench boss before or after the move.
“Part of that was by design,” Cassidy said of the move to close out the preseason. “At some point we’ve talked about who was the best fit there, and I thought Danton [Heinen] was having a tough time so we tried Ryan [Donato] there and put Danton on his forehand. Sometimes that frees you up to be a little stronger on the puck.
“Didn’t work out that way, but we figured we’d look at that.”
That’s hardly a vote of confidence from a coach that seems a little miffed that neither player has seized the role.
(Something to consider as Wednesday draws near: Much like Donato and Heinen, Anders Bjork and Peter Cehlarik also have brief history to Krejci’s right, and were solid in their preseason showings this month.)
… And to make matters worse, the Bruins really don’t have an answer for their third-line center spot. Jack Studnicka was overwhelmed all the way back to juniors, and Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson is in line for another start in the AHL as the Bruins attempt to make him a more complete, involved-in-every-play type of pivot. And Trent Frederic, who at one point looked to be closing the gap on winning the job, played just 11:48 in Saturday’s finale and didn’t even have a shot attempt to his name (while playing with the Bruins’ Marchand-Pastrnak combination as his wingers).
As of right now, that makes Sean Kuraly your de facto favorite for the job.
What does Kuraly want and/or need to do to make that a legitimate fit for his high-paced game?
“I want to feel more comfortable with the puck. I want to hold the puck, I want to own the puck; I don’t want to give it up in the corners and realize and remember it’s where I can take some chances offensively below the circles and behind the goal line,” Kuraly, who totaled six goals and 14 points in 75 games last year, said. “So how do you put the puck between the circles and behind the goal line? You put the puck past their D a couple times and try to retrieve it. I think I did that a few times and sometimes I didn’t [Saturday]. That’s one of those things I want to get better at.”
… Who emerges as Cassidy’s No. 2 penalty-killing forward pair.
Last year, this was where the Schaller-Nash combo was deployed for over 60 penalty-killing minutes, and provided the Bergeron-Marchand combo with the rest needed for that duo to be among the best in all of hockey. Early odds would have to say that a Kuraly-Acciari or Nordstrom-Wagner combination is their likely No. 2. Krejci is a possibility, as is Backes, but I have to think the Bruins would like to limit their wear-and-tear whenver possible. (Related: The Bruins gave camp invitee Daniel Winnik entirely too much penalty-killing time this preseason. Wasteful.)
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.