Boston Bruins training camp is underway, meaning we’re just over a week away from the B’s Jan. 14 season opener against the New Jersey Devils.
There’s plenty to unpack, so here are 21 musings, observations and takes for the 2021 season.
— If Brad Marchand is ready for the start of the season, our vote is for Jack Studnicka to get a shot in David Pastrnak’s line. Let the middle six build chemistry, while giving Studnicka the chance to play with a pair of elite forwards.
— Maybe the most important player in the wake of the Zdeno Chara departure? John Moore.
Hear us out.
Even if the Bruins are aiming for a youth movement, there’s going to be growing pains. The Bruins aren’t just going to roll out Jeremy Lauzon, Jakub Zboril and Urho Vaakanainen and expect everything go smoothly for 56 games.
We’ve learned that Moore can sit for a while and then come back in and log heavy minutes. Bruce Cassidy trusts him.
Even if Moore is phased out of the lineup at times, he’s going to play, and he’s going to play a lot. This will be Year 3 in Boston for Moore, and the Bruins need him more than ever.
— We’re warming up to the idea of a Lauzon-Connor Clifton third pairing.
Last year, Lauzon proved he could be a good partner for Matt Grzelcyk for his ability to, as Bruce Cassidy once put it, “put out fires.”
Putting the ever-aggressive Clifton with Lauzon might form a good pairing for that exact reason. It’s tough to put Clifton with a Grzelcyk type who likes to push offensively. But if you toss him with Lauzon, he might be able to play a bit more freely.
— The Bruins were accused of taking a big risk in letting Chara walk and rolling with their younger players. However, a 43-year-old Chara was not their future, and the Bruins need to know what they have in these young defensemen now.
Lauzon showed promise last season. Providence coaches raved about Zboril’s improvement. He and Urho Vaakanainen both are first-round draft picks. It’s possible that at least one of the three is a legitimate NHL-caliber defenseman.
— As for why the Bruins decided now to go with the young guns, take a look at the Bruins’ cap space for the 2021 offseason.
That’s a good bit of cap space. Now, it’s largely because David Krejci and Tuukka Rask’s deals are up, but the Bruins want to know now what they have in these prospects so that they can determine whether or not they need to use some of that cap space in the offseason to go outside the organization for an impact defenseman.
The ideal situation is for all the prospects to work out, but if that’s not the case, then the Bruins need to be proactive.
— Hard not to look at Vaakanainen and not liken him to Brandon Carlo a la 2016-17. That would, obviously, be huge for the Bruins.
When the Bruins drafted Vaakanainen in the first round 2 1/2 years ago, the presumed hope was he and Charlie McAvoy would form the top pairing of the future.
McAvoy already has panned out, and maybe a solid showing from Vaakanainen this season will result in the Vaakanainen-McAvoy pairing.
— When Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak are back, the Bruins are going to have interesting choices to make with Studnicka and Anders Bjork.
A reality may exist where they are the best available forwards, but have to get healthy scratched or play on the fourth line. If things are clicking on the other lines, they might have to watch a game or two while a more natural fourth line fit plays.
— Craig Smith is going to be such a fun player to watch, but he might be best served on the third line.
It’s tough to find players (other than bona fide sharpshooters) who love to shoot like Smith does.
Charlie Coyle is a monster with the puck, and it’s borderline impossible to make him lose possession. Putting Smith with that reliable of a center means that third line could be a nightmare for opposing defenses.
— A name that might not mean anything to you but you’ll probably hear a lot: Callum Booth.
The Bruins signed him as a depth goalie over the summer. He’s 23 and never has played higher than the AHL.
And he just might make Boston’s taxi squad.
Reason being: Booth is on a one-year deal and it’s not going to be a top priority for the Bruins to develop him. If he makes the taxi squad, he’ll travel and practice with Boston, but he’ll never play unless it’s a nuclear situation.
It’s better from a prospect management standpoint to have Booth in that role. That way, Dan Vladar, Kyle Keyser and Jeremy Swayman — the Bruins’ true prospects — have a chance to play games routinely in the minors instead of getting important practice time on the taxi squad, but never getting any game action.
— The good thing about the Bruins’ additions of Smith and Ondrej Kase is it will give Bruce Cassidy no choice but to play Bjork on his left.
There’s enough of a sample size to show that the left-shot Bjork playing on his strong wing gets the best out of him. The Bruins probably would love to have the option of putting him on the right when needed, but he’s just so much better on his natural side. Kase and Smith are both right shots, and the only true vacancies up front now are on the third and fourth line left wings.
That should bode well for Bjork.
— An idea we would like to see: A fourth line with Sean Kuraly and Chris Wagner on the wings, then Trent Frederic centering the two.
— The reality: We’ll probably see a Nick Ritchie-Kuraly-Wagner fourth line.
— Regarding Ritchie, trying to shoehorn Ritchie into a second- or even third-line role doesn’t seem like it’s going to work. But Kuraly is a solid center and Ritchie usually is a 20-plus-point scorer each season.
Maybe getting rid of the pressure for Ritchie to be the fix for long-standing issues on the middle six wings and just strapping him into the fourth line will help him truly shine.
— To stick with the fourth line, maybe the vacancy left by Joakim Nordstrom will give Karson Kuhlman a chance to become a full-time NHLer.
He’s great at hunting pucks, and is a swift skater with a sneaky beautiful shot. Putting him with Kuraly and Wagner could make for a high-energy fourth line. There is plenty of Nordstrom in Kuhlman’s game, so there might be a fit there.
— One name to watch: Anton Blidh.
He’s in the final year of his second contract and will be a restricted free agent after this season. His offensive potential is capped, but he’s a solid enough defensive player and plays a heavy game.
— It is worth reminding that even though Kase has yet to score in a Bruins uniform, he showed a ton of promise in the bubble.
In terms of pure skill set and demonstrated ability at the NHL level, Kase might be Krejci’s best option on the right since Rick Nash. They need time to work things out, but the Jake DeBrusk-Krejci-Kase trio deserves to cook a little bit.
— Here’s a figure that seems likely to change: 39.14 percent.
That’s the percent of offensive zone starts Carlo had last season. But with Chara gone, expect Carlo, now Boston’s most defensive-minded blueliner, to be on the ice for a ton of the B’s defensive zone faceoffs.
— Although the Bruins’ intent to play younger guys is largely focused on the blue line, here’s to hoping Zach Senyshyn gets a look at some point this season.
Another first-round pick, he’s taken a little while to blossom, but showed some promise last November before an injury railroaded things and kept him from returning to the NHL again last season.
But like Zboril, he was solid in the final weeks of the AHL season. It doesn’t look like he’ll ever be the scorer he was in juniors, but he’s only 23 and has rounded out the defensive areas of his game.
— Brad Marchand has popped up on Hart Trophy ballots each of the last four seasons, finishing as high as fifth in 2018-19.
Could this be the year he becomes a finalist?
That’s probably predicated on him being healthy to start the season, but it seems like he won’t be out long even if he does miss the opener.
Should he be able to contribute his usual production, plus make up for some of Pastrnak in his absence, it might be tough to find a more valuable player in the league. Of course, other players will stake their claim to the honor, but Marchand this year is in position to make a real run at the Hart.
— And if you want another Bruins dark horse for an award: What about Charlie McAvoy for Norris?
He’s on his way to becoming one of the game’s best defensemen, and getting increased opportunities on the power play with Krug gone should boost his stock (after all, the Norris has unfairly become an offensive defenseman award).
If he can keep excelling, all without Chara, we’ll be looking at a true stud on the blue line.
— The Bruins might look different this season (and we know we just spent many of these previous thoughts saying, ‘Hey, give this youngster a chance,’), but the Bruins aren’t rebuilding. They just aren’t.
There’s a somewhat silly, but true, saying that so long as the Pittsburgh Penguins have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, they’re not rebuilding. The Bruins are in that same position with Bergeron, Pastrnak and Marchand.
They have too much talent, which includes a goalie that just last season was a Vezina finalist.
Things are going to look different, sure. But the outlook on the Bruins, even with the Krug and Chara departures, is far more rosy outside of Boston than it is in it. That’s because, with emotion taken out of it, everyone can see the Bruins are a legitimately talented team that, if nothing else, can contend in the Eastern Conference.
Point being: Keep perspective. The Bruins are still very good.