There weren’t a lot of highlights in the Bruins’ 3-1 preseason loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on Monday. They managed just 14 shots on goal all game and got outshot 19-10 at five-on-five. As coach Jim Montgomery put it after the game, they “weren’t sharp” and “turned a lot of pucks over unnecessarily.”
Poitras continues to make a serious roster push
There was at least one standout, though, and it’s someone who has turned into the biggest story of this Bruins preseason: Matt Poitras.
The 19-year-old center’s push to make Boston’s opening night roster continued to get stronger, as he was once again the team’s best player on the ice. You can now safely say that Poitras has been the Bruins’ best player in two of the three games he has played this preseason. He was one of the best in the other.
Poitras, the Bruins’ second-round pick in 2022, continued to showcase his vision, awareness and playmaking with one good play after another. A no-look backhand pass to Justin Brazeau in the high slot on one shift. A couple shifts later, a cutback in his own zone to start a clean breakout, followed by a nice pass to Ian Mitchell coming off the bench for a scoring chance at the other. Then on the power play, a patient play to move the puck down to Charlie Coyle and help set up the lone goal of the game.
On a night when the vast majority of the Bruins lineup spent their shifts getting outshot and chasing play, Boston had an 8-2 advantage in shot attempts and 85% expected goals-for when Poitras was on the ice at 5-on-5 play. He also won eight of his 11 faceoffs and even contributed nearly two minutes of shorthanded ice time to a penalty kill that went 5-for-5.
While Montgomery was critical of his team’s “puck support” overall, that was an area of Poitras’s game – one of several, in fact – that he praised.
“I thought he did an excellent job tonight,” Montgomery said of Poitras. “He shows a lot of poise with the puck. He makes plays. He makes intelligent support plays. He’s someone who built our team game tonight out there and made a lot of smart hockey plays.”
That “built our team game” line is critical. That has been a team-wide emphasis for Montgomery since Day 1 of training camp. It means he is looking for players who do all the little things with and without the puck in order to help the Bruins deny scoring chances at one end and create them at the other, whether that player winds up getting rewarded on the scoresheet or not.
Poitras’s passing and shiftiness, as seen in the videos above, is pretty easy for even the most casual fan to notice. Figuring out if he’s good on faceoffs is as simple as looking at the box score or his stats from last season (he won 57% of his draws in the OHL last year, by the way). That Montgomery is noticing and highlighting his “support plays,” like giving teammates a passing outlet and helping them win battles, tells us that Poitras is doing the little things right in addition to making flashy passes.
That is being reflected in the Bruins’ possession and chance numbers across Poitras’s three games, which have featured him playing on three completely different lines (on Monday, his linemates were Jesper Boqvist and either Marc McLaughlin or Justin Brazeau).
In the 33:12 that Poitras has played at 5-on-5 this preseason, the Bruins lead opponents 26-16 in shot attempts, 17-11 in shots on goal, 16-5 in scoring chances, 6-0 in high-danger chances, and 2-0 in goals. His 82.5% expected goals-for percentage is the best mark on the team, as are his three points.
He is far from a finished product. Whether it’s in the NHL or OHL, the Bruins will want to see Poitras use his shot more. He has just three shot attempts and one shot on goal this preseason. It will become harder to make plays against NHL defenses if opponents don’t respect his shot.
Still, with two preseason games to go – and Poitras maybe playing in just one of them – it is getting harder and harder to imagine the Bruins keeping Poitras off their opening night roster and sending him back to the Guelph Storm in the OHL. He is not eligible to be sent to AHL Providence.
The Bruins can keep Poitras for up to nine regular-season games without burning the first year of his entry-level contract. At that point, they would have to decide to either keep him and begin his three-year ELC or send him back to Guelph.
At the very least, it seems like it would be worth the Bruins’ while to take advantage of that longer look and see if Poitras looks as good in regular-season action as he has in preseason play. The only downside is that it would mean one additional player gets waived, but that seems like a relatively small price to pay given the potential payoff.
This isn’t like past seasons when the Bruins were loaded up the middle with Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci and Charlie Coyle occupying their top three center spots. Coyle is now one of the top two centers along with Pavel Zacha. Morgan Geekie entered camp penciled in as the third-line center, but he has been a fourth-liner throughout his young career and was having a relatively quiet camp before scoring a power-play goal Monday night (a goal assisted by Poitras). Montgomery has made it clear that he likes Trent Frederic more on the wing than at center.
Poitras’s game may not be suited to a fourth-line role, and Montgomery has said they are not entertaining the idea of moving him to wing. That’s just fine, because that third-line center job is there for the taking. Geekie shouldn’t be a stone-cold lock; he can slide over to wing or bump down to fourth-line center – his regular role in Seattle the last two years – if Poitras beats him out.
It’s certainly possible that Poitras could push his way even higher in the lineup, if not immediately then at some point this season if he sticks around. That would slide Coyle back down to his usual third-line spot.
Declaring Poitras a season-long solution at center at this point would still be a bit premature. But he is certainly pushing the door open and forcing the Bruins to seriously consider keeping him around for at least the start of the regular season. They would be wise to not close that door just yet.