BRIGHTON, Mass. – With a week to go until the Bruins start playing games for keeps in the regular season, it would appear changes are finally coming to the roster with a wave of young players ready to make their contributions.
It simply remains to be seen how much of a youth makeover the Bruins will be getting, but modeling themselves after a Penguins team that embraced the change and won the Cup last season, with a mix of kids and established stars, wouldn’t be such a bad thing.
“[The young guys] need to continue to show that they’re good enough to play here and the other part too is you want to see if they understood how we want to play,” said Claude Julien. “They’ve got to be able to show they can do that as well. This is what we’re expecting out of these guys. It’s the last opportunity for everybody here to make sure we’re on the same page, we’re headed in the right direction and that we understand how we need to play.
“[The young players] get the opportunity, and they get the chance to prove us right or the chance to prove us wrong. That’s where the determination of the individual comes into play. If they come in here giving us reasons for them to be on the team then we’ll make room for them. That’s always been the case from Day One when I’ve been here. Right now, where there’s a situation where certain guys are going to make our decisions hard, and I like those decisions. It makes our team situation a lot better when we have those [difficult choices].”
Young forwards Austin Czarnik and Danton Heinen have absolutely torn up the competition in the preseason with their speed, playmaking ability and hockey IQ. They have really done everything required to win spots on the official NHL roster next week. Fourth-line center Noel Acciari may be part of a B’s roster heavy on centers that will demand flexibility and accountability among their top-12 spots, but could also open up a world of possibilities for Julien at both ends of the ice.
It’s something Julien watched work out swimmingly with Team Canada at the World Cup of Hockey with a roster loaded with centers and the B’s bench boss may just adapt that philosophy to the Black and Gold this season.
“We just went through it at the World Cup with a lot of centers playing wing. It was great for face-offs; one gets kicked out and the other one goes in. They adapted well and it just gave us more flexibility. It’s hard to replace a centerman, but it’s much easier to replace a winger,” said Julien. “When you’ve got them on the wing and something happens to somebody playing down the middle, then you’ve got somebody to replace them, and feel a lot more comfortable about that. For us, we like our players to be versatile and play different positions when asked to.”
Clearly, things are a little more wide open up front with the loss of Frankie Vatrano for the next three months. Both Czarnik and Heinen have produced offense, fit in well with veteran players on their lines and showed capable, responsible play in all zones. Czarnik, in particular, has provided options for Julien where he can load up on his top two forward lines, and piece together a second line of three centers (Ryan Spooner, David Krejci and David Backes) with Krejci manning the middle.
That alignment would allow David Pastrnak to play right wing, with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand, and piece together a third line with Matt Beleskey providing the heavy, veteran presence alongside lighter rookies in Czarnik and Heinen.
Another impressive rookie, Sean Kuraly, is also still in the running for a fourth-line spot with Dominic Moore and Acciari and that would leave Riley Nash, Jimmy Hayes and Tyler Randell scrapping and scraping to be the extra forwards.
Again, Moore, Acciari, Nash and Kuraly are all natural centers, and could potentially comprise a fourth line full of centers taking draws on their strong side and sometimes sharing the weighty pivot responsibilities at both ends of the ice.
It will be up to the kids to hold onto the jobs they’ve seemingly won to this point. One would expect Czarnik, in particular, has learned that lesson after admittedly fading out at the end of last year’s training camp following an impressive start.
“It’s been a positive experience for me, and I’m happy to be in this position right now,” said Czarnik, who scored his second goal of the preseason in Tuesday night’s preseason loss to Montreal. “I took [from last training camp] that I had to be more confident. I wasn’t as confident. I was a little nervous out there every single day with the older guys, and the veterans. So I just came in there this year with a little bit better mindset that I could go out there and make some plays, and not be so scared of them. I think that’s been the biggest thing.”
On the back end, it’s a lot more cut-and-dried with seven players (Zdeno Chara, Colin Miller, John-Michael Liles, Adam McQuaid, Kevan Miller, Torey Krug and Joe Morrow) signed to one-way NHL deals and Christian Ehrhoff potentially threatening one of their jobs on a veteran tryout while dressing for the final couple of preseason games. The German D-man already impressed Julien with his play for Team Europe during the World Cup of Hockey, so now it’s a matter of whether he can fit in with the established B’s group.
“We need to see how he fits on our hockey club, as well,” said Julien. “Playing those [preseason] games isn’t really about proving anything as much as it’s about ‘How does he fit in our group?’ That’s important. I guess we’ll make that decision when the time comes, but our goal is to give him that opportunity that he asked for, and that we were willing to give him because we want to see if he could be a fit for our hockey club.”
We’ll end this piece with my best guess as to what things will look like when NHL rosters are made official on Wednesday, but it feels like there are still some things very much in the air for the Black and Gold: