What is the future going to look like for the Bruins at the center position? Will they need to bring in help from outside the organization via trade or free agency at some point?
Best and worst from Bruins' preseason opener
Those have been the biggest questions facing the Bruins since Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci both announced their retirements this summer. They will continue to linger until or unless some clear answers are provided. Obviously, three training camp practices and one preseason game is not nearly enough time for those answers to emerge.
That said, the Bruins clearly have some young centers who are doing everything they can to show they’re ready to be part of the solution.
Case in point: The play of Matt Poitras and Johnny Beecher in Boston’s 3-0 win over the New York Rangers in Sunday night’s preseason opener at TD Garden.
After spending three practices on a line with David Pastrnak, Poitras got to center veteran wingers James van Riemsdyk and Jake DeBrusk on Sunday. The 19-year-old did not look out of place at all, setting up a goal for DeBrusk at five-on-five and scoring a goal of his own on the power play.
The goal came 7:20 into the game, with Poitras setting up in the left circle, taking a pass from defenseman Reilly Walsh, and snapping a shot through a van Riemsdyk screen past Jonathan Quick. The assist came early in the second period, with Poitras making himself available for a drop pass from van Riemsdyk and then feeding DeBrusk at the right dot for the finish.
Bruins coach Jim Montgomery was impressed by more than just the points from Poitras.
“I think the way he competes. He competes on draws. He competes for loose pucks. Not timid at all in any area,” Montgomery said of Poitras. “There was one play in the second period where he dove down to win a battle and he got low, and he won that battle and then he drove by someone to take a hit – could have taken a heavy hit – took a glimpse of a hit. Sign of a little bit of an elusive player that they didn't get a big piece of him. Those kind of plays show me his competitive fire and that he wants the puck.”
Same goes for Beecher, who also scored a goal but did plenty of good things on top of that. His goal came five minutes after Poitras’s second, with him taking a pass from Jakub Zboril in transition, racing right past the Rangers defense, and beating Quick five-hole.
Beecher also brought some physicality along with linemates A.J. Greer and Patrick Brown, something he said he knows he has to do if he’s going to win a bottom-six role. He won seven of 11 faceoffs, something Montgomery previously highlighted as a strength that could work in Beecher’s favor. He was also a significant part of a penalty kill that killed off five Rangers power plays, another critical part of the job for a prospective fourth-line center.
Montgomery wasn’t about to hand Poitras or Beecher NHL jobs after one preseason game, especially considering the Rangers also played few NHL regulars. He noted that both will have to keep it up for the rest of training camp, a task that will only get tougher as they grind through two more weeks. He also made it clear that Poitras in particular still has an uphill battle as he tries to make the jump straight from the OHL to the NHL (he is not eligible to play in the AHL this year).
“It's a big challenge, because it's a man's league out there,” Montgomery said. “He didn’t see the NHL tonight. So, it's a really good start, but that's what he needs to do, right? He played a really good game. He’s gonna get another game, and as he keeps playing, he'll get rewarded and continue to get rewarded. I mean, it would be a pleasant surprise if he was able to do it.”
Here are some other takeaways from Sunday’s game:
-- As good as Poitras and Beecher were, the No. 1 star was goalie Brandon Bussi. The 25-year-old stopped all 29 shots he faced, with 10 of those saves qualifying as high-danger shots. The highlight of the night was a 10-bell glove save on Jonny Brodzinski, who appeared to have a wide-open net during a Rangers power play.
“It was unreal, honest to god,” Montgomery said of the save. “It was a great play by them, but the fact that he read it – I mean, that's a double slot line play. They go in at like 75% because it's a yawning cage that someone's looking at. And Brodzinski put it three quarters of the way up the net. It wasn't like low glove and shot it in the glove. He went and snared it. That was big-time, big-time athletic ability.”
Bussi isn’t exactly competing for an NHL roster spot given that the Bruins still have Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman, but his performance Sunday, combined with an impressive first pro season in Providence last year, should give the Bruins some confidence in him should anything happen to Ullmark or Swayman.
-- Forward Patrick Brown and defenseman Jakub Zboril both left the game with injuries and did not return. Brown blocked a slap shot in the first period and was clearly in pain afterwards. He gutted through a couple more shifts, but then left the game for good. Zboril took a late, high hit in the corner in the second period and appeared to be moving gingerly afterwards. Like Brown, he played a few more shifts, but couldn’t finish the game.
After the game, Montgomery termed both of their exits “precautionary,” but otherwise didn’t have much of an update. If Brown were to miss any time, it would open the door wider for Beecher to win the fourth-line center job. If Zboril misses any time, the competition for the seventh defenseman spot would be wide open.
-- A.J. Greer, who brought the physicality all night and really all training camp, dropped the gloves with Ben Harpur late in the game. Greer wound up getting his jersey pulled over his head and was pretty much defenseless for a couple Harpur punches that could’ve done more damage than it appeared they actually did. Despite playing 61 games last season, Greer is not a lock to make the opening night roster this year. The physical play certainly helps his case, though.
-- Aside from Zboril, none of the defensemen in Sunday’s lineup are really expected to compete for regular NHL playing time this year. One D who had a strong game, though, was Mike Callahan. Aside from perhaps one misread when Jimmy Vesey got past him down the wing, Callahan looked calm and clean in his own zone and helped start several breakouts. P-Bruins coach Ryan Mougenel said last week that Callahan was “outstanding” in the Prospects Challenge in Buffalo and that he thought he was “ready to push” in Boston training camp. The Providence College product probably still has an uphill battle, but that push may be happening.
-- Left wing Anthony Richard’s speed was noticeable and helped him get two grade-A chances, but he hit the post on one and shot right into Quick’s chest on the other. Richard was a top-10 scorer in the AHL last season and he also had five points in 13 NHL games with Montreal. He’s probably on the outside looking in for an NHL roster spot, but he shouldn’t be ignored.
-- Top prospect Fabian Lysell had a pretty quiet night. Not necessarily a bad night, as he did make some good effort plays on the forecheck and in the defensive zone, but just a quiet one when it came to creating chances. He also took a tripping penalty in the third period. Montgomery did praise Lysell’s speed and willingness to attack the middle of the ice, though, and also said he thought the 20-year-old got better as the game went on. Still, Lysell is probably going to have to show more if he’s going to make a real push to be on the opening night roster.