By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
Speaking with reporters after Tuesday's session, Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy praised Kevan Miller for the way he helped Matt Grzelcyk grow when Grzelcyk jumped to the NHL full-time in 2017.
Cassidy compared Miller to a "big brother."
“Kevan is a very intense player," Cassidy acknowledged after the team's third day of on-ice work at Warrior Ice Arena. "He approaches practice, workouts, games with a very determined focus. So some of that can rub off [on younger players]: the preparation, the focus, the effort in practice."
And it would appear that the 33-year-old Miller has a new little brother to look after in Jakub Zboril.
On the roster bubble after three full seasons in the AHL as a member of the Providence Bruins, and after a strong finish to his 2019-20 campaign, Zboril finds himself on the left side of a camp pairing with Miller. It's either the Bruins' 3-A or 3-B defensive pairing, with a John Moore and Connor Clifton pairing representing their greatest challenge to ice-time in 2021. And on Wednesday, Zboril looked to embrace the impact of Miller's edge.
Now, Zboril has had a so-so camp to start. It wasn't bad, per se. Zboril had his share of wins in drills and rushes — and against some quality competition — but you never felt like he was grabbing hold of the opportunity in front of him. A first-round pick in 2015 still looking to make the jump (he and Zach Senyshyn , and after three AHL seasons, I just figured there'd be a bit more juice.
It arrived Wednesday with another day of Miller to his right.
Beginning his morning with a shutdown of Patrice Bergeron along the wall, and using both his body and stick to shut down all of Bergeron's options on the rush, Zboril's upped this strong start during some five-on-five drills. On one of their first sequences, Zboril activated as a puck-carrier through the neutral zone, gained entry into the attacking zone, and helped turn the possession into a high-quality look on goal. And in a separate five-on-five drill — and with this one against the Bergeron Line and Jeremy Lauzon-Charlie McAvoy pairing — Zboril showed great poise and jumped on a loose puck to extend his group's o-zone time.
These were determined, confident moves from Zboril.
The strides were made by Zboril, of course, but Cassidy knows the kind of impact that Miller's intensity can provide to bring a player to that point.
"Kevan, with Grzelcyk for example, years ago now, he’d go to him and say, ‘We’re not getting scored on today in these D-zone coverage drills or the line drills. We’re gonna shut ‘em down and this is gonna be our goal today,'" Cassidy recalled. It’s things like that that get you more focused for each drill."
(Miller, by the way, absolutely bodied a winger to separate him from the puck during a five-on-five drill. Intensity isn't a problem, especially with Miller rebounding from a 21-month absence.)
It's about getting most out of each session, and if Miller can bring that out of Zboril, they'll take it. Happily.
"You’re not really held accountable except to your teammates and yourself in terms of making the practice or yourself better," Cassidy noted. "There’s no end result, there’s no game, there’s no two points on the line. So you have to find ways to challenge yourself in practice to get better and that’s what I think Kevan can do for Jakub."
What will the Bruins do with their top power-play unit?
The Bruins decided to cut the offensive zone into halves Wednesday for some five-on-two work.
The interesting group was on the right, as you had Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, Jack Studnicka, and Charlie McAvoy working some crisp magic from in tight. In this sequence, Jack Ahcan served as McAvoy's defensive partner. This may be telling in terms of the B's top power-play unit to begin the season, with Ahcan playing the role of Matt Grzelcyk (and the net-front Stundicka likely playing the role of either Charlie Coyle or Jake DeBrusk). With David Pastrnak out, the Bruins could do what they did last year and have David Krejci move up to that first unit to maintain its four-forward, one-defenseman look. Or they could embrace the look of a traditional three-forward, two-defenseman power play. This was how the second unit was built last year, and with Grzelcyk and McAvoy playing together on that unit, so there is some familiarity there.
The Bruins did the same drill during the second session (which featured Grzelcyk), and Grzelcyk absolutely ripped a shot top shelf shot for a tally. One of the subtle things you'll notice if Grzelcyk is indeed the heir to Torey Krug's throne as the power-play quarterback on the B's top power-play unit will be the difference in shot quality. Krug had an absolute rocket of a shot, and teed up one-timers at will. Grzelcyk will be a bit more subtle. There's more potency behind his wrister than his slapper.
If the B's No. 1 unit can generate its movement, Grzelcyk will have the ability (and space) to walk in and load up his wrist shot for a high-quality chance on a fairly regular basis. If the Bruins are going to take advantage of that, however, Grzelcyk will need to shoot more, as his 8.38 power-play shots per 60 minutes ranked 45th out of a group of 60 defensemen with at least 100 minutes of power-play action last season.
Grzelcyk had a career-high seven power-play points in 2019-20.
Other tidbits and happenings
- After Trent Frederic skated in his spot Tuesday, Anders Bjork was back on the left side of the Black and Gold's fourth line with Sean Kuraly and Chris Wagner for Wednesday's session. As previously written, this line may be matchup-dependent, but it's worth noting that Bjork has skated with NHL-quality linemates all camp. Frederic, meanwhile, spent Wednesday's session with Par Lindholm and Zach Senyshyn. This may come down to Brad Marchand's availability (he looks completely good to go,), but Opening Night seems like it's Bjork's spot to lose.
- Speaking of lineup combinations, Jack Studnicka skating on the right side of Boston's first line once again would tell you that he's the favorite for the position. The timeline of this camp is incredibly important to note. The Bruins wouldn't by all means waste precious sessions by putting Studnicka with Bergeron and/or Marchand if they did not have legitimate plans of playing him in that spot. Watching the trio Wednesday, Studnicka's shot, and more specifically his ability to get it off quickly, may be an underrated weapon.
- The Bruins' plans for their Thursday and Friday scrimmages is pretty straight forward: Two sessions with 30 minutes of running time and rotating four goalies (Callum Booth, who has been skating in two sessions per day since camp opened on Monday, will get a breather). Cassidy compared it to two periods of hockey.
- Still no Anton Blidh, Karson Kuhlman, or Oskar Steen on the ice. Given the pace of this training camp, this is basically like missing a full week of work, if not more. It'll certainly hurt their ability to crack the Opening Night roster come Jan. 14, and Kuhlman was already up against it given the solidified additions on the right side. That said, Blidh and Kuhlman both seem like potential taxi squad candidates given their familiarity with the system and NHL experience. Steen seems likely to head down to
Providence Marlborough when their season begins.