By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Bruins will begin the season without David Pastrnak, the reigning Rocket Richard winner and third piece of what’s considered the best line in hockey, on the right side of their first line.
They’re mighty big shoes for anybody to fill.
But the Bruins appear to have a name in mind, as it was top prospect Jack Studnicka who got the call to the right of Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand (in a red jersey) in the first on-ice session of the Black and Gold’s 2021 training camp Monday. This wasn’t a one-off to simply get through their first formal skate at Warrior Ice Arena, either, as Studnicka has a legitimate chance of breaking through with this duo when things get underway in less than two weeks.
“He’ll be competing for a place in the lineup,” Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy offered after Monday’s sessions. “Right now, I’ve played him on the right side. He’s obviously more of a natural centerman, but we’re pretty healthy and strong down the middle, so he may have to start the year with us on the wing. That’s where it’s going.”
In action for two regular-season contests and then another five games inside the Toronto bubble, Studnicka got on the board with a single helper, but impressed with his pace and ability to create energy and chances all over the ice. The former was on display Monday, too; Studnicka went from going top shelf on a goalie to beating himself up after not finishing a drill, only to come back and up his own compete. It’s that kind of motor that the Bruins will always welcome on their roster, and his efforts both past and present weren’t lost on his potential linemates.
“I really like the way [Studnicka] played in the playoffs,” Marchand said. “He’s a very talented kid. I’m looking forward to seeing what we can do and watching him take that next step. That’s what we need: we need young guys to come in and perform and be big parts of this group, and he’s one of those guys that’s gonna do it for us.”
“I was really impressed with his development from training camp last year to training camp [before] the bubble this past summer,” Bergeron, who broke into the league as a wing before moving back to his natural center position the following season, said. “Just the jump that he’s made over that time was amazing to see. I don’t think he’s missed a beat.”
This tends to be where the Bruins get the most out of their young guns; Tyler Seguin played with this duo following Mark Recchi’s retirement, Reilly Smith grabbed a hold of the gig following Seguin’s departure, and then Pastrnak exploded with ’em. In fact, it’s been tough to find players who don’t fit with Bergeron and Marchand. 2015 deadline pickup Brett Connolly and the Boston bust Jimmy Hayes come to mind as just two players who failed to find their fit with Bergeron and Marchand, and even then, it wasn’t a tire fire, there just wasn’t enough finish for the coaching staff to stick with it.
Bergeron doesn’t worry about Studnicka moving from center-to-wing, either, noting that Studnicka “seems like one of those players who’s really smart and positions himself well.”
Studnicka is not the only option for the Bruins, however, as Cassidy noted Anders Bjork, Ondrej Kase, and Craig Smith as potential options that could get a look with the Marchand-Bergeron combo.
How did the B’s young defensemen perform on Day 1?
With Zdeno Chara and Torey Krug gone, the Bruins have multiple openings on their left side, and certainly have their youth in mind when it comes to filling those positions. And Monday gave us our first look at that youth’s potential and fit in 2021.
Gotta be honest, I was expecting a little more from Jakub Zboril out of the gate. Zboril got bullied in a one-on-one drill with Trent Frederic, and while he rebounded some in a two-on-two drill with Charlie McAvoy as his partner, there just wasn’t enough consistent pop for a two-game NHL vet vying for a full-time NHL role. You just wouldn’t think that Zboril knew the opportunity in front of him with the way he played. First impressions aren’t everything, of course, but this is a little different than when we saw Brandon Carlo came in and grab a spot in 2016, and when McAvoy walked the walk in 2017.
With about a week of camp dates, and without a preseason game, these sessions are what’s going to matter.
Urho Vaakanainen, meanwhile, had a solid showing in the second session, which included a strong poke-check breakup on a Charlie Coyle attempt to drive to the middle during a two-on-two drill. This is Vaakanainen’s bread and butter. Speaking of smooth, Vaakanainen’s first pass out of his zone had more zip and purpose on it than when we last saw him. These are the foundational pieces that’ll certainly help his odds of locking down an Opening Night spot on the B’s roster.
If you care to include Jeremy Lauzon in this group, he’s by far the clear favorite for a locked down spot in the B’s top six. In addition to being the first name mentioned by Cassidy whenever the idea of Chara leaving was brought up this past offseason, Lauzon spent a large chunk of Monday’s session playing opposite McAvoy. And while nothing’s finalized — the Bruins are still unsure if they want to put McAvoy in a position where he’s carrying a younger player — that feels like a good sign for his role.
Fire up the Craig Smith hype machine
I think the Bruins are cooking up something that has real potential on line three, with Craig Smith riding to the right of Charlie Coyle. Watching Smith up close for the first time Monday, his shot sticks out, and same for his pace. I admittedly didn’t see a ton of Smith in Nashville, but I always thought of him as a Michael Ryder-esque player who simply has a wicked shot and knows where to be to create offense for his team. No, this is more like Ryder with a jetpack on his skates.
This is exactly what Coyle, who is a puck-possession monster, needs to open things up. Hell, he just needs a winger who’s not afraid to shoot the damn puck, as you had too many nights in 2019-20 where Coyle was asked to do just about everything.
The Bruins are going to do their best to keep Smith with Coyle throughout camp and into the season, too, as Cassidy wants to avoid “playing [Smith] with everybody but developing chemistry with no one.”
Another thing the Bruins like about Smith? His experience playing for coaches that demanded accountability, with Smith playing for Barry Trotz and then Peter Laviolette before finishing his Nashville run playing for John Hynes.
It looks like Nick Ritchie will get the first extended look as this duo’s complementary winger on the left.
Other tidbits and happenings
– One thing you loved to see: A vocal Charlie McAvoy. With six defensemen out there for his session, and a solid rotation among that six, it seemed that McAvoy was in constant communication with his defensive partners. It’s simple, but these are the little things you want to see more of McAvoy as he truly takes over the defense’s No. 1 in 2021. McAvoy himself said that post-Chara leadership will be “by committee,” but he was quick to point out that he wants to be a strong presence in the locker room and emerge as somebody that everyone can rely on.
– I don’t believe intensity is going to be an issue this camp. The second session was particularly thump-happy, too, with countless board-rattling one-on-one battles. The highlight: A battle between Robert Lantosi and Matt Grzelcyk saw Lantosi chop Grzelcyk’s stick out of his hands and out of reach. Grzelcyk responded by keeping pace with Lantosi and bodying him off the puck completely, and Grzelcyk decided to also tackle Lantosi’s partner on the drill for good measure. It was all part of the fun of this camp, really, as Lantosi was quick to retrieve Grzelcyk’s stick for him.
– The only players I don’t recall seeing out there Monday: Anton Blidh, Karson Kuhlman, and Oskar Steen. Steen played 16 games for Bjorkloven IF (Sweden) before reporting back to Boston, so it’s possible that he’s still in quarantine. We’ll have to see if they’re on the ice tomorrow or if there’s an update on their status. The Bruins also added Jakub Lauko to their official training camp roster handed out to the media, but it was confirmed to 98.5 The Sports Hub that Lauko, who is on loan to Karlovy Vary HC (Czech Republic) is not in Boston and will not be reporting to camp. Seems like a simple roster-printing error, and that same roster didn’t have Daniel Vladar listed and he was very much in attendance, so take that for what it’s worth.