The Bruins hit the ice at Warrior Ice Arena on Thursday for their first official practice of the 2023-24 season, and then they hit each other.
Training camp takeaways, Marchand named captain
One of the clear early themes for this Bruins team is that they want to be more physical than last year. And there was no easing into that on Thursday.
During the first session of the day, defenseman Jackson Edward, a 2022 seventh-round pick, knocked down new captain Brad Marchand with a clean hit behind the net. Marchand responded by turning around and knocking down alternate captain Charlie McAvoy, who was briefly shaken up but ultimately just fine.
The tone was set. There would be no taking it easy – not even by or on the captain. During the day’s second session, winger Alex Chiasson, in camp on a professional tryout, sent top defense prospect Mason Lohrei sprawling to the ice with a crunch along the boards. A short time later, Marc McLaughlin, in the same battle for limited roster spots up front, sent Chiasson flying. Chiasson got up and made a run right back at McLaughlin.
This wasn’t exactly the rough-and-tumble training camps of yore, with Bruins coach Jim Montgomery noting afterwards that you had to deal with frequent fights breaking out when he was coming up in the 1990s. Nonetheless, it was a welcome sight for Montgomery.
“We want physicality,” Montgomery said. “We need to be a more physical team this year than we were last year, in our opinion. So, we liked the physicality. And guys are fighting for jobs, so there should be physicality out there, when the drill requires it.”
Bringing back Milan Lucic this summer was one obvious move to address that desire for more physicality. Other additions may not be traditional bruisers, but several are big bodies who will be expected to get to inside ice and win battles at the front of the net. James van Riemsdyk (6-foot-3) has made a career of that. Morgan Geekie (also 6-foot-3) and Chiasson (6-foot-4) bring size and strength as well.
“I think we're a little bit of a bigger and heavier team,” Montgomery said. “But also, we just think that we need to be more physical at net fronts, offensively and defensively. We saw that as an area to improve from what we learned from the playoffs last year.”
Montgomery is of course referring to the Bruins’ shocking first-round loss to Florida, a series in which the Panthers won too many battles around the net, especially in the Boston zone.
The Bruins won’t be as talented as they were last season, so they’re going to have to find different ways to win. Being more physical and tougher to play against could certainly be one of those ways, and one that fans could get behind.
Fun with lines
Aside from the physicality, the most interesting part of Thursday’s practice was Montgomery’s line combinations. As he did last year, Montgomery mixed inexperienced young players in with established NHLers.
As a result, you got top forward prospect Fabian Lysell skating on a line with Brad Marchand and Charlie Coyle. Georgii Merkulov centered Jake DeBrusk and Danton Heinen. Marc McLaughlin was with Pavel Zacha and James van Riemsdyk.
Perhaps most interesting of all, though, was Matthew Poitras centering David Pastrnak and Jesper Boqvist.
The 19-year-old Poitras was the Bruins’ second-round pick in 2022. He turned heads with the Guelph Storm in the Ontario Hockey League last season with 79 assists and 95 points in 63 games, landing him second in the league in assists and fifth in points.
Poitras’s playmaking and hockey IQ are his biggest strengths, so why not put him with one of the best goal-scorers in the world and see what he can do?
“He’s a high-end thinker. He’s shown the ability to make a lot of plays,” Montgomery said of Poitras. “He had 80 assists almost last year in the OHL, so almost one and a half a game, right? So, playmaking center, see what you can do with a proven goal-scorer. That's the thinking, because you want to see if there's chemistry.”
Chemistry, eh? Could Montgomery actually have something longer-term in mind here? It certainly seems unlikely that Poitras and Pastrnak will be together come opening night. Montgomery himself has already said he envisions Pastrnak with Pavel Zacha, a fellow Czech and frequent linemate last year.
But Poitras making the Bruins isn’t out of the question, and playing with Pastrnak at some point – even in future seasons – could certainly be a possibility. Poitras isn’t eligible to play in the AHL this season, so it’s either make the big club or get returned to the OHL. The latter seems more likely at this point, but the former is Poitras’s goal, and the Bruins aren’t going to stand in his way if he can prove he’s ready over the next couple weeks.
“Obviously the goal is to try and make the Bruins,” Poitras said. “It'd be a dream come true to play in the NHL, but I think just put my best foot forward to try and make it as difficult as possible for them to send me back to juniors. I can't play in the AHL this year, but just make it a difficult decision to send me back to play in juniors.”
Poitras acknowledged that there were some nerves when he found out he was going to be skating with Pastrnak, but said that Pastrnak, named an alternate captain on Wednesday, helped him feel more comfortable by telling him to just go out and play during a pre-practice chat.
Further down the lineup, Montgomery rolled out a pair of potential fourth lines during the day’s second session. One featured Johnny Beecher centering Milan Lucic and Jakub Lauko. The other was Patrick Brown between A.J. Greer and Alex Chiasson.
There’s a good chance that the actual fourth line come opening night will feature some combination of those six players. Lucic might already be a lock for fourth-line left wing; that’s certainly the role the Bruins had in mind for him when they brought him back. Lauko played well in 23 games as a rookie last season and the Bruins are hoping he’ll build off that, and possibly even challenge for third-line playing time.
Greer played 61 games last season and more than held his own. He can certainly bring some of that physicality the Bruins are looking for. Chiasson has been an effective fourth-liner elsewhere, including on a Cup-winning Capitals team in 2017-18. He can also contribute on the power play in a net-front role.
Perhaps the most interesting player in this group is Beecher, the Bruins’ 2019 first-round pick. The 22-year-old had 23 points in 61 games for AHL Providence in his first full professional season last year, which certainly doesn’t jump off the page. But P-Bruins coach Ryan Mougenel noted last week that by the second half of the season, he was using Beecher in a lot of key situations.
Beecher’s size (6-foot-3, 215 pounds) and high-end skating have always made him an intriguing prospect. Everyone would still love to see more offense at some point, but in the meantime, his defensive smarts and the physicality he’s added to his game could be enough to get his foot in the door.
Beecher’s clearest path to making the Bruins out of camp is to beat out Brown, signed in free agency over the summer, for the fourth-line center job. He knows that, and he’s not shying away from the fact that he has his eyes on that spot.
“Yeah, absolutely. I think everybody in camp is fighting for a spot,” Beecher said. “I think if I’m to contribute to the team this year and be able to help them, that's probably where I'm gonna do the best. I mean, it's not a role that I have any problem playing. I've played on so many high-powered offenses – you look back at my time at USA and over at Michigan, always kind of playing that power forward role, being heavy, being hard to play against in the D-zone. So, definitely something I take a lot of pride in.”
Something else that could work in Beecher’s favor is that he’s a left shot who’s good on faceoffs. Montgomery has been clear about the fact that he’s looking for another lefty faceoff man behind Zacha, and acknowledged on Thursday that “absolutely” could be a path for Beecher to make the team.