Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy was talking to the assembled media in front of him after a 2-1 overtime win against Columbus on Saturday, but he could’ve just as easily been talking to the handful of forward prospects that have come and gone from the Bruins roster this season without earning a full-time NHL job.
Cassidy was asked about defenseman Connor Clifton not only earning a call-up to help replace the injured Torey Krug and Matt Grzelcyk but also getting a promotion to the second pair with Brandon Carlo to face the Blue Jackets’ dynamite second line of Matt Duchene centering Ryan Dzingel and Josh Anderson.
“Yeah, I like his game. I like that he competes,” Cassidy said about Clifton. “Listen, it’s the Bruins identity. We’ll coach – it’s our job to coach him up the rest of the way. They’ve got to bring up the compete level.”
Cassidy went on to describe the responsibility of the coaches to give players like Clifton the right strategy and try to look for friendlier matchups. But when it was pointed out that Clifton had to contend with an extremely potent Columbus second line in just his 11th career NHL game, Cassidy explained:
“The conversation was, ‘Can you play left defense? If you want to play in the National Hockey League you’re going to have to, basically tonight.’ And he nodded his head, and off he went, so I give him credit. It’s not easy. You know, you’re playing against Duchene’s line. It’s a good line, and you’re playing on your offside, and you haven’t played a lot of games. So, he’s going to earn some trust with the coaches, and I think he’s going to earn some respect from the players.”
Whether they were watching or listening down in Providence, or they’re reading this in the P-Bruins’ locker room right now, the message was loud and clear from Cassidy. Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, Trent Frederic, Peter Cehlarik – you’re back in the AHL for a reason and you’re on notice. Cassidy and his staff are willing to work with you as long as you play hard and smart in your role. That goes for players who haven’t been called up yet, like Zach Senyshyn and Ryan Fitzgerald.
General manager Don Sweeney had to go out and trade for Marcus Johansson and Charlie Coyle because it turned out there weren’t enough internal options to fill the second-line right wing and third-line center positions. Then a rash of injuries hit and because the Providence callups weren’t able to fill in properly the Bruins saw the end of their 19-game point streak and went on a three-game losing streak.
The Bruins got Jake DeBrusk back Saturday and David Pastrnak could be back this week. But there could be more injuries to come. And if the Bruins are going to go deep this spring, they’re going to need their reinforcements to follow Clifton’s lead and compete as though the NHL is a place they want to stay and not just some place they want to someday tell their grandkids they visited.
And as for Clifton, he can’t get enough credit for what he did against the Blue Jackets. Duchene’s goal after a John Moore turnover and poor coverage obviously opened the coaching staff’s eyes about making the necessary change to the pairs. Clifton, known more for his risk-taking play in the AHL, kept things simple and used his speed to stay in proper position against some high-end Blue Jackets forwards. Carlo lauded Clifton’s communication for helping the pair succeed. As the Bruins learned earlier this season when they were down five defensemen, between Clifton, Urho Vaakanainen and Jeremy Lauzon (who’s currently injured in the AHL), Boston has NHL-ready help in case of emergency.
The same can’t be said about their forwards.
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