Hopefully for Bruins head coach Claude Julien‘s sake, he’s taken advantage of the California weather this week on his West Coast road trip to get out for a walk or hit up the beach and do some thinking. He certainly has some decisions to make in the coming days and weeks.
Julien has had to use duct tape and innovation to keep his team together for much of the season, and he’s poised to start getting some of his veteran players back very soon. Two of those players — forwards Shawn Thornton and Loui Eriksson — could be back in the mix as soon as Saturday when the B’s wrap up a three-game California road trip.
That presents Julien with some theoretical decisions. Despite the fact that his team isn’t playing great hockey right now, inserting Eriksson and Thornton right back into the lineup isn’t as cut and dry as it may seem.
Julien gave the impression that Eriksson could return as early as Saturday night, which would be his first game action since Dec. 7 when he suffered his second concussion of the season. Assuming that Eriksson does go Saturday night, what exactly does Julien do with the winger? There’s a school of thought that a player, especially a top-six forward of Eriksson’s ilk, shouldn’t lose their spot in the lineup due to injury. Yet, Reilly Smith has performed admirably on the Boston second line in Eriksson’s absence. Counting the Dec. 7 game in which Eriksson was injured on the first shift, Smith has scored 10 goals to go along with five assists in 16 games. Smith has built undeniable chemistry with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand, something that wasn’t exactly happening with Eriksson up on the second line.
“We’ll wait and see when Loui gets back, when he’s ready to play. I haven’t personally talked to Claude [Julien] or [general manager Peter Chiarelli with what the thought is there,” Bruins president Cam Neely said Thursday on 98.5 The Sports Hub. “But Reilly has played very well for us with Marchand and Bergeron. He’s stepped up and handled that position and that role really well, because also he’s playing against the other team’s top line.
“They got pretty good chemistry going on right now, so we’ll see. Loui’s been out a lot this year, and we’ll see when he’s ready to come back and play what Claude has in mind. But you’re talking about a line that’s played well for us.
Julien’s best play may be to put Eriksson on the third line on the right side. That doesn’t carry as much risk as breaking up the second line, but the Boston third line has been pretty solid in the last few weeks as well. Ryan Spooner has jump-started that trio as the pivot between Carl Soderberg on the left and Matt Fraser on the right. Soderberg and Fraser combined for a gorgeous goal on Thursday in Los Angeles. However, Fraser would most likely be the odd man out if Eriksson lands on the third line. Eriksson would likely bring a little more defensive stability to that line, which is something the Bruins could certainly use at this point. They would just have to hope it doesn’t come at the price of ruining any sort of mojo that third line has going at the moment.
The situation surrounding Thornton is murky as well. Julien was asked before the Bruins went out on the club’s three-game road trip whether he was excited to get Thornton back in the mix after the fourth-line winger finished up a 15-game suspension.
“Gotta earn his spot,” Julien quipped, seemingly at least half-joking.
It’s a legitimate point, though. The Bruins’ fourth line has been a revolving door since Thornton’s suspension. Daniel Paille suffered an injury one game after Thornton’s suspension started, and that’s forced the Bruins to shuttle players back and forth from Providence. In the past week, however, they may have found something that worked. Justin Florek was recalled last weekend before a game against Winnipeg. He’s been very solid for the club since and was rewarded with his first career goal against the Kings. Julien even trusted Florek with 1:51 of penalty kill time on Thursday night. That’s 1:51 more shorthanded ice time than Thornton has seen in the last two seasons combined.
Of course, the great equalizer is that the Bruins really aren’t playing very well right now. It would be much tougher for Julien and the Bruins to break things up if the team was in the midst of an eight-game winning streak. Regardless, the Boston bench boss has some pretty tricky lineup decisions to make, and he probably has to make them very soon.