By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
With two preseason games in the books, the Boston Bruins remain a picture half painted.
The top of the Boston roster seems largely set, but there’s still about six to seven bodies playing for two open spots within the Black and Gold’s 12-forward set, and some defenders who plan on making general manager Don Sweeney’s life difficult.
Here’s our first stab at what the Bruins will bring to the table when the regular season begins in Dallas on Oct. 3…
Last year’s training camp was all about the defense and how the Bruins would fit everybody into the mix (funny how a nonstop barrage of injuries decided to throw that idea out the window), so naturally this year’s camp seems to be about Boston’s plethora of forwards vying for an extremely limited number of available jobs.
First line: Brad Marchand – Patrice Bergeron – David Pastrnak
Despite the clamoring (from fans and media alike) for the Bruins to break up this line to achieve a greater scoring balance up front, Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy has shown no real interest in breaking up one of the league’s best lines. In fact, it’s pretty much been a constant since the 34-year-old Bergeron (groin) joined his teammates as a regular at training camp.
Prior to their (by their standards) quiet postseason run, this line was on the ice for 27 five-on-five goals, which was good for the 12th-most among all forward lines with at least 400 minutes. Among that same group, their 55.97 Corsi-For percentage ranked as the fifth-best, while their plus-42 shot differential was the 11th-best.
Second line: Jake DeBrusk – David Krejci – Karson Kuhlman
It’s early, but Cassidy really hammered home the idea that RW2 is Kuhlman’s job to lose.
In fact, Cassidy seemed to give the 5-foot-11 winger a strong endorsement when talking about him earlier this week.
“I don’t think he’s gonna drop off, he could flat-line, but I don’t believe he’s going to get worse,” Cassidy said about Kuhlman being the No. 1 internal option the Bruins have for Krejci’s right wing. “To me, he’s too good of a person. His short career — from college to here, from Providence to here — dictates that he’ll keep working on his craft and get comfortable.”
The Bruins outshot opponents 82-59 and outscored the opposition 11-4 in 126:59 of five-on-five play with the DeBrusk-Krejci-Kuhlman on the ice between the regular season and postseason. It actually ended the year as Boston’s second line, too, with Kuhlman getting the nod to Krejci’s right in Games 6 and 7 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final.
It’s all been enough to make Cassidy an early believer in what Kuhlman may be able to do for them.
There was definitely a game in Columbus where [Kuhlman], Krejci, and DeBrusk made some plays,” the B’s coach recalled. “I thought Columbus was playing well at the time, so it wasn’t one of those games where they caught a team at the wrong time. Then we started keeping an eye on him a little bit more though. When he did come up, we thought he’d be more of bottom-of-the-lineup, responsible, checking type of guy. Maybe chip in some offense, but probably [has] a little more than we thought.”
Third line: Anders Bjork – Charlie Coyle – Danton Heinen
Not sure if you were able to catch this group’s first game in action on Thursday night, but if you did, you were absolutely TREATED to what could be an extremely fun line to watch in 2019-20 if they earn the opportunity. With Bjork, now playing the left wing after two stop-and-start-and-stop seasons on the right side, on Coyle’s left, there’s a serious opportunity for this line to be a possession monster. Oh, and Danton Heinen may be getting the hang of playing with Coyle, too.
Fourth line: Joakim Nordstrom – Sean Kuraly – Chris Wagner
The Bruins are working with some slight history with this line, as this was indeed a popular version of Boston’s highly-effective fourth line a season ago, and even got some word in the postseason after Noel Acciari went down with an upper-body injury and before Chris Wagner broke his wrist blocking a shot in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
This is a line largely coming off career-highs, too, as Kuraly set career-best marks in goals, assists, and points, while Wagner did the same in goals and assists. Nordstrom, meanwhile, was one of the B’s better forwards in their postseason run, contributing energy shift after energy shift while playing through a battered foot.
Healthy scratches: Par Lindholm, Brett Ritchie, David Backes
With the exception of a hold against P.K. Subban, I thought Lindholm showed something in his preseason debut on Monday night, with a smart stick and two-way game. Now, I don’t think it’s enough to bump any of Boston’s fourth liners from their spot, but it should be enough to become this year’s version of Joakim Nordstrom last year. I wouldn’t be shocked if Lindholm, who can play center and wing and totaled one goal and 13 points in 65 games between the Jets and Maple Leafs last year, becomes Cassidy’s next Swedish Army Knife up front. Plus, it’s hard to imagine him not making the team out of the gate given the waivers risk that comes with Lindholm, and after signing him to a two-year deal this summer.
Brett Ritchie, who has been pegged as a potential fit with DeBrusk and Krejci and on Boston’s third line, is going to be the first to go in if Bjork or Kuhlman falter. Those might be some high expectations for Ritchie, all things considered, as he has scored just 11 goals over his last 124 games. He might be more Noel Acciari than second- or third-line fill-in.
The Bruins will begin the year with four straight road games — the closest one being a solid 1,800 miles away from Boston, yes — but I really do believe this team is putting off a “final” decision on David Backes for as long as possible. That, in my opinion, means that there’s a very real possibility that he begins this year on the roster and as their 21st skater.
Of course, that’s a potentially dangerous game to play considering some of the defensive injuries this team has dealt with in recent seasons, but it’s nothing a little emergency recall couldn’t fix given the spacing of their schedule out of the gate. But assuming good health on the backend, it also buys the Bruins a relatively solid chunk of time to see if some of their non-waiver players like Bjork and Kuhlman are indeed ready for full-time roles on this roster.
There are no real mysteries with what the Bruins have on the backend. In fact, their entire defense corps from last year’s Cup run remain with the organization, though Kevan Miller and John Moore will begin the year on the shelf. Veteran Alex Petrovic, with the Bruins on a professional tryout, remains with the team even after the Brandon Carlo and Charlie McAvoy resolutions, though it’s unclear how long he’ll be sticking around with roster cuts looming.
First pairing: Zdeno Chara – Charlie McAvoy
McAvoy’s back in the fold on a new three-year deal and Zdeno Chara believes he’ll be ready to go when the puck drops on the new season. The 42-year-old Chara is coming off offseason surgeries on his elbow and jaw. This was Boston’s go-to pairing last year, and it’ll be interesting to see if McAvoy takes that next step in 2019-20 and become’s the pairing’s driver.
Second pairing: Torey Krug – Brandon Carlo
While there’s a case to be made for reuniting Brandon Carlo and Chara as the team’s ultimate shutdown pair, the Krug-Carlo duo has generated some absolutely fantastic chemistry together. I wouldn’t consider tinkering with that too, too much.
Third pairing: Matt Grzelcyk – Connor Clifton
With Miller and Moore on the shelf to begin the year, surprise story Connor Clifton should get another extended look to show the Bruins what he can bring to their team with his unique approach to NHL defense. Clifton got off to a good start on Thursday, too, with solid three-zone play and a beautiful backhander to cap off a team-leading 21:58 night.
“He’s going to play and by that, I mean he is not overthinking the game,” Cassidy said of Clifton. “He doesn’t get nervous in the moment. He just plays hockey. We are trying to get him to play to his strengths. When he first came in, I called him a bit reckless. He has some of that in him. We can live with it, as long as he has good intentions and there is more good than bad. We are just trying to get him to find that balance. I think as the year went on last year, especially in the playoffs, he did.
“[Clifton] is a little bit underrated offensively. He got a break coming out of the box. But in general, he tries to keep pucks alive, he will try to attack the net and make some plays. He is stronger on his feet than other players realize because he is not a big guy. He has done some good things for us there. For us it’s how can we help him get better, and it is putting him in situations where he can have success and managing his risk taking to where it is responsible.”
Starting goaltender: Tuukka Rask
He’s still the starter, ‘ya bunch of crazies.
Backup goaltender: Jaroslav Halak
Halak will look to build off what was his best statistical season since his St. Louis days — the veteran Slovak went 22-11-4 with a .922 save percentage — and continue to provide that much-needed 35-start stabilizing presence behind Rask.
Injured reserve: Kevan Miller, John Moore
The Bruins are being ultra, ultra cautious with Kevan Miller’s recovery from a twice-broken kneecap, and they’ve already ruled him out for Opening Night. John Moore, meanwhile, is expected to miss at least the first month of the new season as he recovers from a shoulder injury he played through throughout the entire 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.