Off-ice testing and physicals are over and done with, and the real work is officially upon the Boston Bruins.
After coming up short in the second round for the second straight season (and third time in the last four postseasons), the Bruins went through a serious offseason overhaul that included the departure of David Krejci and Tuukka Rask (for now).
They also made perhaps their biggest free agency splash under Don Sweeney, with five Day 1 signings with serious implications on the team’s NHL roster. It’s given the Bruins perhaps their most crowded camp roster to date, but with little set in stone.
Here are five questions facing the Bruins ahead of the team’s upcoming training camp battles…
Honestly, replacing a top-six fixture of almost a decade and a half in three weeks seems overly optimistic at the very best. And we've already been over how difficult it will be to replace David Krejci's production with the current options. But the Bruins, calling it a 'by committee' process out of the gate, are going to try their best.
The early favorite for Krejci's spot is definitely Charlie Coyle, but the Weymouth native will have a slightly delayed start to training camp due to his ongoing recovery from offseason knee procedures. That's put all eyes on a bulked-up Jack Studnicka, who is still looking to carve out a full-time NHL role for himself after appearing in 22 games with the Big B's since 2019-20.
The timeline here is going to be incredibly interesting to watch.
It sounds like the Bruins are thinking big picture with Coyle's slow start to camp, which makes sense given his projected importance and the need for him to bounce back after a 16-point 2021 campaign. Risking a setback in the name of an on-time camp start before an 82-game season and with the franchise's worst center stability since 2005-06 probably isn't the best idea.
But if Studnicka gets off to a strong start with Taylor Hall and Craig Smith and refuses to take his foot off the gas — and especially if he's able to do that in a preseason game or two with the wingers — the Bruins may have to rethink their approach to the position. The easy move would be to put Coyle back in his familiar third-line center spot, but the Bruins are also expected to see if Jake DeBrusk can develop some chemistry with free agent addition Erik Haula on that third line.
It's also worth mentioning that Studnicka making this team out of the gate in 2021 would require an in-camp injury for one of the Black and Gold's established NHLers or one of those players hitting the waiver wire. But if it helps solve the Bruins' concerns and uncertainties regarding their second line, that's a move you simply have to make.
Speaking of young players pushing for spots, it's worth mentioning that the inn is just about full in Boston should the Bruins stay healthy through training camp and their six-game preseason slate.
Assuming the Bruins go with their usual 13-forward, 8-defenseman format to begin the year, you're most likely talking about a fourth-line scratch (take your pick of Trent Frederic, Curtis Lazar, and Chris Wagner) up front and John Moore and Jakub Zboril on the backend. All those players are waiver-eligible, and the Bruins aren't exactly in the business of giving experienced players away for free if they can help it; Seth Griffith and Malcolm Subban are two examples of training camp giveaways, and Daniel Vladar would've been the third had the Bruins opted not to trade him to Calgary on the first day of free agency.
But the Bruins have also repeatedly said that they won't shut a player out of an opportunity should they earn it.
In addition to Studnicka, there's legitimate belief that 2018 third-round pick Jakub Lauko can push for an NHL spot this camp. As a left-shot, left wing, whose spot is Lauko going to take if that proves true? The Bruins aren't going to waive Haula or Tomas Nosek two months after signing them, and Frederic is entering the 2021-22 with a new two-year deal to his name.
It's the same for 2017 first-round pick Urho Vaakanainen after the Bruins re-signed Mike Reilly and added Derek Forbort in free agency. I mean, Vaakanainen hardly got in any work with the NHL group during last year's training camp, and it's hard to imagine that changing this camp, even after he appeared in a career-best nine games for the Bruins this past season.
"You know, it's no secret we do kind of have more of an established team and established roles," Bruins defenseman Matt Grzelcyk admitted. "I think you just want to come in and if you want to make the lineup, you've got to basically take someone's job. So put your best foot forward. You never know what's going to happen injury-wise [or] how it's going to shake out."
The belief is that the Bruins signed Tomas Nosek to have him center the team's fourth line. With Nosek coming off a career-high eight goals and 18 points last year, that's not a bad play. But Nosek's jump to the Bruins comes after a year that saw him play outside of what you'd consider the 'norm' for a fourth-line pivot. Especially a fourth-line pivot in Boston.
In Vegas, Nosek was on the ice for 395 faceoffs at five-on-five play last year. Just 110 of them came in the defensive zone, and Nosek's 58.96 percent offensive-zone faceoff percentage was actually the third-highest among all Golden Knights skaters with at least 300 minutes of five-on-five play in 2021. Now let’s compare that to the man he’s directly replacing, Sean Kuraly, and how he was utilized a year ago, shall we? At five-on-five, Kuraly was on the ice for 429 faceoffs, and a staggering 211 of them came in the defensive zone. Kuraly’s 22.99 percent offensive-zone faceoff percentage was also the lowest among all Bruins, and was actually the fourth-lowest among the 277 NHL forwards with at least 500 minutes of five-on-five play this past season.
This is a gigantic, gigantic difference.
There's simply no way the Bruins can utilize Nosek in such a fashion and expect anything close to the positive results and career-bests he posted in Vegas. I mean, they can, but it might be a disaster and Nosek might quit hockey all together if that's his new role after he finally tasted consistent offensive success this past season.
So it instead speaks to the idea that the Bruins are going to reinvent — albeit slightly, you'd think — their fourth line and how it's deployed. This is something they've repeatedly talked about in the past but have yet to actually to commit to when the games get real. It's a tone-setting line, and that feels unlikely to change when you look at the personnel around Nosek.
That said, perhaps that's easier to do now that David Krejci is not going to eat up the majority of the team's offensive-zone starts, but if the offensive-zone starts are going to a line with Nosek centering Frederic and Wagner (a combined six goals on 101 shots last season), you'd be right to wonder whether or not that's truly maximizing the gift that is an o-zone start.
How this line is built out of the gate could be a tell in terms of their deployment and its trickle-up effect on the rest of the lines.
In about a year's time, the Bruins have effectively replaced Torey Krug and Zdeno Chara with Mike Reilly and Derek Forbort. We can argue about the effectiveness of those moves 'til we're blue in the face (let's save that for another day), but one thing those moves did present the Bruins with: options for building their defensive pairings.
The Bruins had a good thing with Grzelcyk and Charlie McAvoy throughout the 2021 season. It was a pace-pushing, go-go-go defensive pairing that drove play towards the offensive end at some of the most efficient rates in the NHL. The Bruins also seemed to like the play of the Mike Reilly-Brandon Carlo pairing, but again, another option would've been welcomed.
And the Bruins believe that they have that with the addition of Forbort and re-signing of Reilly.
At 6-foot-4 and with the fifth-most blocked shots in hockey a year ago, there's no denying that the Bruins are looking at Forbort to be their Lauzon replacement. And Lauzon, for what it's worth, was promoted and tasked with being the team's Chara replacement last season. That means a lot of grunt work. But the Bruins are hopeful that Forbort, who put up 12 points in 2021 and has a career-high of 18 points (two times), can find his form of offense within that work.
"We don't know his game as well, obviously, but he's certainly a guy that can make a good first pass, but he's a different player than Reilly in that regard," Cassidy said of Forbort. "We expect him to take on more of the heavier, shutdown minutes, PK, and things like that. But if he's the initiator of putting out fires in our own end and we get going the other way, well, that's offense too, right? It's just he might not be the guy getting on the score sheet to do it.
"So that's the expectation for him and how it can translate into offense and then we'll see where it goes from there."
Things to consider as the Bruins prep for camp and the season: Carlo has made it known that he likes a puck-moving defenseman to his left, the Bruins have always wanted to use Grzelcyk as a matchup-based top-pairing option, and the Bruins have admitted that they want to get a look at Forbort with McAvoy. If and when that happens remains to be seen, but those seem like the three bulletpoints to consider when building this team's ideal six-man grouping on the backend.
One thing that I gotta admit surprised me this summer was the lack of any move for an additional right-shot defenseman.
After the Bruins went deep, deep into their bag (closet) for defensive help on the right side this past postseason after injuries to Kevan Miller, Brandon Carlo, and Jeremy Lauzon (a left shot who could play the right side), Sweeney & Co. didn't make a move to replace the retired Kevan Miller, lost Lauzon to Seattle, and watched Steven Kampfer ride off to the KHL.
The team added Tyler Lewington on a two-way deal and they have hope for feel-good story Brady Lyle, but neither feels like a definitive, legitimate NHL option in 2021-22, and if they are, this team could be in serious trouble.
The Bruins didn't even bring in what you'd consider a legitimate option for right-side depth on a pro tryout either, bringing in lefty Aaron Ness and career AHLer Jack Dougherty, both of whom seem to be gunning for gigs with the P-Bruins.
In essence, the Bruins are hoping that Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo both stay healthy for a full 82, and that Connor Clifton proves capable of handling full-time NHL work. If not, Moore and Zboril are going to be asked to move to their off-side, which isn't the worst thing, but it's also far from ideal when considering what they just went through back in June.
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Ty Anderson is a writer and columnist for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Yell at him on Twitter: @_TyAnderson.