Ding, ding, ding!
It’s the time of year again.
Bruins training camp is upon us, starting Thursday with off-ice testing and then commencing with on-ice practice Friday. That means it’s time for positional battles.
Although coach Bruce Cassidy downplayed the number of openings there are in Boston’s lineup during his press conference to announce his contract extension, there are at least three jobs up for grabs – more if you project Charlie McAvoy and/or Brandon Carlo sitting out an extended period of time during the season as unsigned restricted free agents rather than being part of the Bruins’ defense corps.
Let’s take a quick look at where the battles will commence:
1. Top six right wing
This writer has been advocating for breaking up the Brad Marchand-Patrice Bergeron-David Pastrnak line for some time, but Cassidy has been reluctant to do that. It’s hard to blame him because of how amazingly effective they’ve been the past two seasons. The Bruins, though, might be more balanced with Pastrnak helping out David Krejci rather than skating with two guys, Marchand and Bergeron, that need no help.
Nonetheless, let's figure Cassidy keeps his first line together. That means the Bruins are again searching for someone to play to the right of Krejci and Jake DeBrusk.
Karson Kuhlman, for lack of a better term, is the incumbent, having played there in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final. No one projected him to play in the NHL, let alone play on the second line, when he joined the Bruins out of Minnesota-Duluth last season. But Kuhlman earned the spot and he’ll get a chance to keep it.
Cassidy was quick this week to note that there will be a lot of different line combinations this camp because of the competition and because of veterans needing rest. That opens the door for the following guys:
*Brett Ritchie: The unrestricted free agent signing is the type of big body (6-foot-4, 220 pounds) that’s worked well with Krejci in the past. He hasn’t done much offensively the past two seasons, but perhaps the Bruins have a metric that shows them that when paired with players of Krejci and DeBrusk’s caliber Ritchie could come close to his 16 goal form of 2016-17.
*Anders Bjork: Despite coming off a second shoulder injury in as many seasons, Bjork may be a step faster than everyone when camp opens because of his sharp play in the rookie tournament in Buffalo over the weekend. He had a nice brief run with Krejci and DeBrusk before his injury two seasons ago, and his presence on that line could make it more of a speed line.
*Danton Heinen: He’s had his chance to play here in the past and has done fine, but he’s been at his best on third lines with the likes of Charlie Coyle and Riley Nash as his center.
*Oskar Steen: If there’s a dark horse, it’s the diminutive (5-9, 188 pounds) rookie from Sweden. Built like a fire hydrant, Steen might be able to use his elusiveness to find chemistry with the playmaking Krejci.
2. Third-line wing
Marcus Johnasson is a Sabre and the Bruins are looking for his replacement. The candidates for a top-six spot listed above are obviously in the mix for this job as well.
Chris Wagner, coming off a 12-goal season, could fit the bill, or Paul Carey might find some South Shore magic with Coyle. But no one outside of a fringe few think Peter Cehlarik is finally going to grab a NHL job. And the Bruins probably want to start Jakub Lauko in the AHL.
Zach Senyshyn could also be in the running with a strong camp.
One has to figure Joakim Nordstrom, Sean Kuraly and Wagner are penciled in as the fourth line, but if Wagner moves up, that could open playing time for Par Lindholm or Anton Blidh on the fourth trio.
3. Right-side defense
Zdeno Chara, Torey Krug and Matt Grzelcyk are definitely on the left side. The right side? As empty as Fenway’s going to be next homestand with McAvoy and Carlo.
Sure, if McAvoy and Carlo are in the fold, well then Connor Clifton has to fight off all comers for the third-pair role. Kevan Miller will challenge when healthy, and then there’s veteran Steven Kampfer, an excellent placeholder when the Bruins need to get by because of injury or contract conflict.
Rookie Urho Vaakanainen is a fine enough skater to move over to the right side, but he has just 32 games of professional experience in North America (30 AHL, 2 NHL). He might need more seasoning. Jeremy Lauzon also has experience moving to his off side, as does Grzelcyk.
Bottom line, the Bruins have depth if they get everyone under contract. Without McAvoy and Carlo, they’ll be digging deep the way they did in the face of a rash of injuries last fall, and you can’t count on them being able to survive the same way this time around, especially with Miller and John Moore not part of the solution.