While plenty more still needs to be hammered out before we can consider the return of hockey a definite, clarity is increasing in some regard with each passing day.
A big step forward was taken Tuesday, when the league announced its return to play plan. In short, the league is looking to bring 24 teams to two separate “hub” cities, and after a brief play-in round for the bottom eight teams in each conference a more normal postseason with 16 teams would ensue.
Given the layoff between the pause in March and the potential start of games in late July (at the earliest) will be nearly five months, it’s long been assumed rosters would expand, especially with the AHL season cancelled.
Deputy commissioner Bill Daly said the league did “envision” roster expansion happening, and SportsNet’s Elliotte Friedman later reported that the idea of 28 skaters on the roster with unlimited goalies is being kicked around.
The roster size could change…but that's the current discussion
— Elliotte Friedman (@FriedgeHNIC) May 27, 2020
Typically, the active roster size is 23 including goalies, so that’s a pretty substantial increase.
Excluding goalies from this exercise — which, by the way, we’d bet they’ll bring both Dan Vladar and Maxime Lagace up to join Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak if there isn’t a limit on netminders — the Bruins have 22 skaters we would describe as “locks.”
That would leave six spots to fill. Here are some of the candidates, with a little background on each.
Trent Frederic — Hasn’t gotten too long of a look in the NHL, but is as close to NHL-ready as any of Boston’s prospects. Plays a 200-foot game and made big strides in the AHL this season.
Zach Senyshyn — Another guy who took notable steps forward in the minors, and he looked good in a brief NHL stint skating on a line with Bjork and Coyle before getting hurt. He’s still a big question mark in the top flight, but has shown tantalizing flashes.
Brett Ritchie — Tough run in Boston this season before getting put on waivers, but might get some consideration depending on how much rosters expand. He’s certainly a longshot if the limit is 28 skaters.
Brendan Gaunce — Got a call-up and played in one game with Boston, but has a total of 118 NHL games to his name. Also had a solid year with Providence, putting up 18 goals with 19 assists.
Karson Kuhlman — As close to a lock from this group as could be. He was down with Providence when the pause began (which is why he’s on this list and not a lock), but he’s spent plenty of time in the NHL and skated in the final games of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final. He’ll be up.
Jack Studnicka — The most high-upside Bruins prospect in the minors right now. Limited NHL experience, but he very likely would be one of the names chosen here.
Cameron Hughes — His ceiling probably is an NHL fourth liner, but he’s responsible and made his NHL debut this season. If the Bruins had fewer quality options, he’d probably more in consideration for one of the final spots.
Paul Carey — A steady player who hasn’t shown much with Boston, but has been a great captain for the P-Bruins this season. If nothing else, he deserves to be in the mix.
Steven Kampfer — Has been a good soldier since coming back to the Bruins. He’s proven he can fill in in a pinch and fare well (see: 2019 Eastern Conference Final Game 1), which means he might be an enticing option here.
Alex Petrovic — Might be a reach, but was brought in on an NHL PTO before joining Providence. This is the first season he’s even appeared in the AHL since 2014-15, so there’s plenty of experience in varsity play — including six postseason games with the Florida Panthers in 2016. Like Ritchie, he’s probably a fringe guy that only gets a shot if rosters are bigger than 28.
Urho Vaakanainen — One of the most highly-touted blue line prospects, he’s started to find his game more this season, becoming more involved in the offensive end. He might not be ready to be a full-time NHLer, but his name will most certainly be discussed when it comes to choosing the rosters.
Jakub Zboril — It’s taken him some time to develop, but he’s really come around this campaign and was regarded by Providence head coach Jay Leach as the team’s best defenseman in the games leading up to the pause. He’s only played in two NHL games, but appears positioned to be ready for a jump. Whether or not that happens this summer or not remains to be seen.
Prediction: Frederic, Kuhlman, Studnicka, Carey, Kampfer, Zboril
Playoff roster expansion wouldn’t be time to take too many chances, so this group of six seems like it gives the Bruins the best option of established guys who could plug in and play right away (Kuhlman, Carey, Kampfer), as well as some high-upside but more unproven skaters who are about ready to make the jump (Frederic, Studnicka, Zboril). Well, at least in this armchair GM’s eyes.
One has to think there’s a possibility that teams will be able to carry “Black Aces” in addition to the 28 skaters, but like many things, that’s not totally clear at the moment.
What is clear though, is that Don Sweeney and other executives around the league have some personnel decisions to think through over the coming weeks as the NHL tries to pull of a return.