Believe it or not, hockey is back. The Bruins officially turn the page on last season’s stunning first-round exit and an offseason full of turnover on Wednesday when they report to Warrior Ice Arena for the first day of training camp. Their first official practice will be on Thursday.
Most interesting storylines heading into Bruins training camp
Expectations won’t be as high as they were for last year’s record-setting squad, and the term “bridge year” will be heard plenty from fans and analysts, but the Bruins themselves expect to remain competitive and be right in the middle of the playoff mix once again.
And they should. While there are lots of questions up front following the retirements of Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci and the departures of Taylor Hall, Tyler Bertuzzi and others – and we’ll get to those questions in a minute – the Bruins also return the best goaltending duo in the league and one of the best defense groups.
A step back should absolutely be expected, but there is still enough here for Boston to be a playoff team. And as last year proved, anything can happen if you just get in.
Here are five Bruins storylines we’ll be following as training camp gets underway:
1. The new top lines
David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand are still the top right and left wings, respectively. Jake DeBrusk has established himself as a top-six fixture over the last year-plus. After that, well, the rest of the Bruins’ top six is going to look a lot different.
Obviously, the turnover at center is the biggest story here. Bergeron and Krejci are gone, and the Bruins didn’t bring in any big fish to replace them. That leaves Pavel Zacha and Charlie Coyle as the top two centers.
Zacha broke out with 57 points last season, which was one less than Bergeron and one more than Krejci. He did that mostly while playing on the wing, but did get some run at center later in the season and into the playoffs when Krejci and then Bergeron missed time. Zacha looked the part of someone ready to take on a bigger role up the middle, but now he has to actually go out and do it.
Coyle is coming off his best all-around season as a Bruin and also got a taste of top-six duties in the playoffs when Bergeron and Krejci were out. In fact, Boston won Games 3 and 4 in Florida with Zacha and Coyle as its top two centers. Coyle will need to produce a little more offensively, though, if he’s going to stick in the top six longer than he did two years ago, when he started the season as the second-line center with Krejci playing in Europe only to eventually get supplanted by Erik Haula.
While there could be some mixing and matching through training camp and preseason, coach Jim Montgomery has already said that he anticipates keeping Zacha with Pastrnak after those two played together most of last season, while Coyle will slot into Bergeron’s old spot between Marchand and DeBrusk.
That leaves left wing on the Zacha-Pastrnak line open. Veteran free-agent signing James van Riemsdyk is expected to get the first crack there. The 34-year-old has a long history of top-six production, but he plummeted to 12 goals and 29 points in 61 games last season on a bad Flyers team. JVR’s size, shot and net-front work absolutely could be a good fit with Zacha and Pastrnak, but the goal and point totals will have to rebound if he’s going to stick long-term.
If van Riemsdyk can’t run with the job, Trent Frederic or Morgan Geekie could be at the front of the line to make a push for top-six work, as could top prospect Fabian Lysell. DeBrusk could flip to the left side if one of those right wings moved up.
2. Third-line center
There had been some thought that this might be Trent Frederic’s job for the taking, but Montgomery has indicated that he prefers to keep Frederic on the wing after a breakout 17-goal campaign.
That would leave free-agent signing Morgan Geekie as the most logical choice to step into the spot that Coyle had occupied. The 25-year-old was a solid fourth-liner for the Seattle Kraken the last two years, including putting up a career-high 28 points in 69 games last season, but his 5-on-5 rate stats suggest he has the potential to produce more in a bigger role. Among 382 qualified forwards, Geekie ranked 10th in 5-on-5 assists per 60 minutes last year. In addition to his playmaking ability, his 6-foot-3 frame and forechecking game could make him a good fit with Frederic.
Geekie isn’t the only candidate, though. Georgii Merkulov is coming off a stellar first pro season with AHL Providence and could be ready to push for an NHL job. Matthew Poitras, a 2022 second-round pick, turned heads with a 95-point season in the OHL last year and has drawn rave reviews for his playmaking and hockey IQ. The 19-year-old might not be ready just yet, but crazier things have happened.
Fellow youngsters Johnny Beecher, Marc McLaughlin and John Farinacci are all natural centers who are looking to carve out a spot as well. Their skillsets may be better suited to fourth-line roles, at least for now, but they can change that narrative if any of them pop in camp.
3. Bottom-six battles
The third-line center competition is obviously part of this conversation as well, but the bottom-six wing jobs are even more up for grabs, aside from Frederic being locked in.
Milan Lucic is back, and you can pencil him in for third- or fourth-line left wing duties. But the 35-year-old’s production in recent years (19 points last season, no more than 23 points since 2017-18) by no means makes him a lock to be an everyday player. Lucic will still have to prove himself, as will anyone else trying to earn playing time over him.
A.J. Greer and Jakub Lauko are both back after carving out rotational roles on last year’s team. Both will be aiming to solidify roster spots – and ideally everyday roles – once again. Lauko, in particular, could be one of the top candidates to push for third-line work if the 23-year-old’s offensive game continues to grow.
Free-agent signing Patrick Brown would appear to have the inside track to win the fourth-line center job, but he’ll have to fend off challenges from the youngsters mentioned above (Merkulov, Poitras, Beecher, McLaughlin, Farinacci). Brown can also play wing and potentially win a job there if someone bumps him out of the middle.
The bottom-six wing battles run deep. In addition to those already mentioned, candidates with NHL experience include Jesper Boqvist (signed to a one-year NHL contract), Danton Heinen (back in Boston on a professional tryout), Alex Chiasson (also in camp on a PTO) and Jayson Megna (signed to a one-year, two-way contract).
Boqvist brings some speed, finishing ability and offensive upside that flashed at times in New Jersey, but not consistently enough to land him an extension there. Heinen remains the solid, smart two-way player he was in Boston before, and he did score a career-high 18 goals just two years ago. Chiasson is a big body who has proven he can be a net-front asset on the power play, something the Bruins might be looking for on their second PP unit.
But wait, there’s more. Anthony Richard was a top-10 scorer in the AHL last year and also had five points in 13 NHL games with Montreal. Oskar Steen has generally acquitted himself well across his 26 NHL games with Boston and is looking to show he’s finally ready to stick. Luke Toporowski, undrafted out of the WHL, parlayed a strong first pro season into a two-year extension and just had an impressive showing at the Prospects Challenge in Buffalo. Fabian Lysell’s skillset might be better suited to a top-six role, but he could break into the NHL lower in the lineup to start.
A few of the centers mentioned above, like Beecher and McLaughlin, can play wing as well. Clearly, there aren’t enough roster spots for all of these guys. But how this all plays out, especially with so many differing skillsets, will be fascinating to watch. Montgomery will certainly have a lot of options and combinations to sift through.
4. Is the defense completely settled?
We know there’s no real goalie competition. Barring injury or trade, the net will belong to Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman again, with the two more or less continuing to split time… at least in the regular season.
The defense, on paper, looks relatively settled as well. The top four should consist of Charlie McAvoy, Hampus Lindholm, Matt Grzelcyk and Brandon Carlo – however Montgomery decides to line them up. The third pairing is expected to be Derek Forbort and veteran free-agent signing Kevin Shattenkirk. Jakub Zboril could be in line for seventh D duties again.
That doesn’t mean there’s zero competition for defense jobs, though. There’s always the possibility that someone makes a push and beats out one of those seven.
The most intriguing option is top prospect Mason Lohrei, who has made it clear he wants to win an NHL job despite having just eight games of AHL experience under his belt. He’ll get a chance to do it, but it shouldn’t be surprising or disappointing if it turns out he needs a little more AHL seasoning.
The Bruins also added Ian Mitchell, Alec Regula, Reilly Walsh and Parker Wotherspoon to bolster their organizational depth on the back end, and all of them have at least had a cup of coffee in the NHL. Any could be capable of making a push to at least be the seventh or eighth D.
5. The youth
We’ve covered all the names in the context of the positional battles above, but in the bigger picture, it will be interesting to see just how far along some of the Bruins’ top prospects are.
Even if they don’t win NHL jobs out of the gate, you want to see Fabian Lysell, Mason Lohrei and Georgii Merkulov show that they’re close. You want them to make a real push. You want to feel like they could be ready to contribute at some point this season.
Has Johnny Beecher’s offensive game grown? Can Marc McLaughlin improve upon a strong preseason last year that seemingly had him close to making the team? Will Matthew Poitras make it hard for the Bruins to send him back to juniors? He is not eligible to play in the AHL this season, so it’s NHL or OHL.
The Bruins clearly have no plans to simply hand NHL jobs to younger players. General manager Don Sweeney restocked with veterans this summer rather than tear things down and rebuild. They still expect to compete and will play whatever players they think give them the best chance to do that.
That said, the Bruins also know they need some younger players to break through soon, and they’d love for it to start now. It’s not going to be easy for any of the kids to win NHL jobs, but if they do outperform the veterans slotted ahead of them, the Bruins can and should play them. We’ll see if any of them are ready to do that over the next couple weeks.