By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
Next season is already off to a rough start for the Bruins.
With word of three Bruins undergoing offseason surgery last month, the odds would suggest that the Bruins will begin next season without both Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak in uniform. (That is assuming that the NHL drops the puck on Jan. 1 as planned, of course.) The 32-year-old Marchand has another three months to go in his recovery from a sports hernia repair, while Pastrnak has four months left in his recovery from a hip procedure. That’s a brutal punch to what was an already top-heavy Boston attack, with that duo accounting for over 33 percent of the team’s total scoring.
It’s enough to get Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy thinking up some mid-October tinkerin’.
Starting with Marchand, the Bruins’ sans Marchand left wing group features Anders Bjork, Nick Ritchie. Par Lindholm and Sean Kuraly can also play left wing, and Trent Frederic’s NHL jump will likely come with him at wing opposed to his natural center position. Jake DeBrusk, currently a restricted free agent and the subject of trade rumors since this chaotic offseason started, is the obvious wild card. But let’s assume that the Bruins, who are being linked to free agent Mike Hoffman after missing out on Taylor Hall, keep the 23-year-old DeBrusk around.
In fact, let’s just assume this is the group the Bruins bring to training camp, as unlikely as that may seem on Oct. 14.
Among that group, Anders Bjork has the most experience playing with Patrice Bergeron, having logged over 100 minutes of five-on-five play with Bergeron over the last three years. But it’s certainly worth mentioning that most of that has been on the right side, and with Marchand as his opposite winger. Bjork, who the Bruins have identified as better on his left than his right, would not be afforded such luxuries this time around, and would assume LW1 responsibilities.
It’s not a perfect fit — especially after what we saw during the postseason when Bjork was tasked with top-line duties in the postseason — but it may work for the first few weeks of the 2020-21 season. It’s also their best play among the options listed.
“Bjork was one of the players that probably had more primary scoring chances than several others five-on-five and failed to finish,” Bruins general manager Don Sweeney said earlier this offseason. “At some point he’s either going to have to score or be even better as a stronger checking forward and a penalty-killing player. That’s to be determined.”
That trickle-down effect would keep DeBrusk with David Krejci on Boston’s second line. (Perhaps Cassidy goes back to looking at his forward lineup in ‘pairs’ without Marchand and Pastrnak available, which is something he did when he first took over in 2017. That approach would almost certainly lead him to believe that DeBrusk-Krejci is one of his three pairs.)
But things get a little trickier when you get to the third and fourth lines.
Nick Ritchie was a suboptimal fit with Charlie Coyle during the summer restart. He also arrived to Phase 3 with some obvious conditioning issues. That may change with a full offseason program in the B’s system. (You’d hope, anyway.) And on the fourth line, and with Joakim Nordstrom a likely goner, the Bruins may look to go back to their 2019-looking fourth line with two heavier bodies around Kuraly. That would bode well for Frederic, or for Anton Blidh (20 hits in seven NHL games last year).
With the division as a whole adding some thickness to the bottom of their lineups — the Maple Leafs signed Wayne Simmonds and Zach Bogosian, Radko Gudas has joined the Panthers, and all while the Bolts retained both Pat Maroon and Luke Schenn — it’s fair to expect the Bruins to force that heavier style into their bottom-six forward group if possible.
On Bergeron’s right, however, things get a little trickier.
Without Pastrnak, Boston’s right side is headlined by deadline pickup Ondrej Kase and free-agent signing Craig Smith. Other on-roster options include Karson Kuhlman and Chris Wagner. There’s also top prospect Jack Studnicka. (B’s brass believes that Studnicka, a natural center who moved to the wing with the Bruins looking for some added punch in their middle-six this past postseason, is ahead of his development.) 2015 first-round pick Zach Senyshyn, who had a successful cup of coffee with the B’s last year before a knee injury sidelined him, is also lurking in the shadows.
The 24-year-old Kase got a mini-run with Bergeron in Boston’s Game 5 loss to the Lightning, and it ended with him demoted to the fourth line. In all, Kase contributed five assists, and failed to find the back of the net on 36 shots, in 17 total games with the Bruins. He also had a bout with COVID-19, we think. It wasn’t the best first impression. Nevertheless, I would imagine that the Bruins are hopeful that Kase can develop a Czech connection with Krejci in 2020-21. That may put him out of Bergeron’s range.
That brings us to Smith.
Bergeron was instrumental in bringing Smith to Boston, so their relationship is already off to a good start. And if paired with Bjork on his left wing, Bergeron is going to want somebody who shoots on his right. Smith checks that box, with 11.74 shots on goal per 60 minutes of five-on-five play last year. That ranked as the fifth-most in all of hockey.
Ideally, a Bjork-Smith combo is what you want on the third line with Coyle, but it may be the Black and Gold’s option with Bergeron, and would still come with the puck-possession look that they’d want the line’s wings to provide.
“Smith’s a true right winger, volume shooter, probably plays best on the second- or third-line role,” Sweeney admitted. “We’ve felt all along that the depth in scoring has to be there. It showed up this year in the playoffs. It was a real factor for us in the previous year. Craig touched an awful lot of the boxes that we were looking to plug that hole with.”
With Kase the favorite as Krejci’s right wing out of the gate, and with Smith seemingly destined for either first- or third-line minutes to begin his Bruins tenure (no change there or anything!), that leaves two spots to be nabbed between Kuhlman, Senyshyn, Studnicka, and Wagner.
Of that group, Wagner is the lone certain, so the debate is really between Kuhlman, Senyshyn, and Studnicka.
And to be honest, it makes the most sense for the Bruins to give Senyshyn the extended look, likely with Coyle, here.
Let’s not mince words: Senyshyn, drafted with the No. 15 overall pick, hasn’t delivered. He’s one of two 2015 first-rounders yet to emerge as an NHL player (Jakub Zboril is the other). He’s undoubtedly staring at the ‘bust’ label. But in his four-game run last year, the speedy Senyshyn recorded two assists. He would’ve had three had it not been for a nonsensical review that wiped a Coyle goal off the board. He hasn’t looked too, too out of place when it comes to the NHL game.
The Bruins also need to figure out what the hell they have here, too. And now’s the time.
A restricted free agent, Senyshyn will be waiver-eligible when he reports to Bruins training camp for the 2020-21 season. That means a failure to make the team out of camp will see him land on the waiver wire, where 30 teams will have the chance to scoop him up for free. This is not foreign to the Sweeney regime. The Bruins previously lost 2012 first-round pick Malcolm Subban and once-touted prospect Seth Griffith to this process, while Peter Cehlarik made it back down to Providence.
So rather than losing him for nothing out of camp, why not give Senyshyn what’s essentially a sink-or-swim trial with No. 88 out?
If he fails, there’s more of that ‘bust’ confirmation (and it reduces the chance of somebody scooping him up off waivers), but if he succeeds, you just found another capable right-wing, and after five years of waiting to see it. (It’s also worth mentioning that Kuhlman and Studnicka are still waiver-exempt, so failing to use those options wouldn’t make a ton of sense unless they absolutely light the world on fire in the preseason/training camp.)
“We certainly expect players to continue to push our group,” Sweeney offered last month. “Trent Frederic, Zach Senyshyn, Jack Studnicka, several other young players that we feel are going to be part of the future of the organization. But they have to come earn their spot. I should say, we’ve been very consistent with providing opportunity but not providing guarantee of a roster spot.
“You have to come and earn that.”
Especially with Boston missing its two biggest weapons.