WILMINGTON, Mass. — The world of the healthy scratch is a strange sort of purgatory.
The players left out of the lineup are still an important part of the team, but it's difficult to feel like a full-fledged member of the squad when you're not out there on the ice when it matters. The ability to handle the disappointment of not dressing, without losing the drive to force your way into the lineup is the key to being a valuable depth player.
"It's been fun to be a part of and fun to watch even though I haven't played yet," said Bruins forward Brian McGrattan, who has remained a positive presence in the room despite his limited role. "You notice the attitude around the team, in practice, away from the rink, during games, it's pretty cool and hopefully we'll keep it going and put together a good stretch of wins here."
McGrattan has yet to dress in the first five games of the season. He was signed after a training camp tryout to add some size and toughness up front when needed, but he understands that his particular skillset isn't required every night.
"Obviously it would be nice to play every night and play every game," said McGrattan. "Obviously in the role I have on the team you're not going to play every night, but the thing is to be ready. You never know, a guy gets hurt or someone is not playing well or we lose a couple games and your number gets called. That's what I'm waiting for."
That's the ultimate catch-22 of the situation. McGrattan certainly doesn't want to see a teammate get injured or struggle or have the team slip into a losing streak. But he also knows those might be the only circumstances that will get him in the lineup.
The same goes for Daniel Paille. He was a stalwart on the penalty kill last year and found himself often moving up to one of the team's top lines. This year he hasn't dressed since the opener in Prague, as rookie Jordan Caron replaced him in the second game and shows no signs of relinquishing his roster spot after scoring two goals in his first four NHL games.
"Right now we're winning, so I'm just focusing on what happens from there," said Paille. "I'm kind of curious to see the next several games to see how things go. We're playing great right now, so there's not much I can do."
Actually, there are a few things the scratches can do, and Paille, McGrattan and defenseman Adam McQuaid have been doing their best to take advantage of the opportunities they do get, particularly in practice.
"For me right now, these practices are my games, so I have to try and be really sharp in practice," said McQuaid, who has been scratched in all five games so far this season. "I try to do some little things after practice to keep my lungs and keep myself ready when my opportunity comes."
That's exactly the kind of attitude the Bruins' coaching staff expects from its spare players.
"It's up to both the coaching staff and the players to continue to stay sharp by working and doing extra after practices and making sure that when you get that opportunity you'll be ready," said head coach Claude Julien. "There's different things you can do, but the bottom line is that as long as he's here, the guy has to stay sharp. We've got to work with him and make sure he stays sharp so that when he gets in the lineup he's ready to go."
Still, no matter how intense the practice, it's still impossible to truly replicate a game situation.
"You can do what you want in practice, but games are different," said McQuaid. "The only way to get back into game shape is to play games. I'm just trying to be as best prepared as I can be. There might be a little rust, but hopefully it will only take one or two shifts to shake it off."
Julien recognizes the danger of sitting guys out for too long, then simply throwing them back into the fray. But he also realizes that his club is playing some spectacular hockey right now, and he doesn't want to risk disrupting that chemistry with any unnecessary lineup changes.
"You've got to be careful," said Julien. "You don't want them to be rusty, but at the same time you have to do what's right for the team. We're at that stage right now where the decisions aren't always easy and it's not always fun for those healthy scratches, but it is what it is. And that scenario could change tomorrow. You never know. Game by game situations happen, whether it's from individual play or injuries. We're early in the season and we're a healthy team and that makes it tough for those guys right now, but I'm sure as the season progresses those decisions might not be as tough as they are now."
In the meantime, the scratches will have to make the best of the time they do have in practice, and take advantage of learning what they can by observing the games they don't play from up top in the press box.
"It's better to go upstairs and watch the game," said McGrattan. "You can actually see the flow of the game and get a better feel for it. You can watch the guys that play your position and see what they do on certain things like the forecheck or on breakouts. It does help a lot because things are different here than the team I was on last year, so watching up top and actually seeing the plays start, it's better."
The Bruins scratches also have an advantage in keeping their spirits up. All they have to do is look across the locker room at Johnny Boychuk. Last year Boychuk started the season as the seventh defenseman, and was a healthy scratch in 25 of the first 28 games, including 21 straight at one point. But he took full advantage once he got his shot and is now playing on the top pairing alongside captain Zdeno Chara.
"It's definitely an inspiration," said McQuaid. "He bided his time and made sure he was ready when he got his chance. He made the most of it and I'm looking to do the same thing when I get my chance. But definitely seeing what he did last year helps me with my situation."
Knowing the alternative to life as a scratch helps too. Any day in the NHL, even one spent wearing a suit in the press box, will always beat a day on the bus in the minors.
"Obviously I'm up here, so I'm not complaining," said McQuaid. "But you always want to be playing. It would be even better if I could be in the lineup."
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