Bruins

Haggerty: Could Vatrano be in danger of not making Bruins roster?

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Haggerty: Could Vatrano be in danger of not making Bruins roster?

BRIGHTON, Mass – With it getting down to crunch time for the Bruins opening night roster and the final version due into the league offices by Tuesday afternoon, Frank Vatrano might just be in jeopardy of not making the cut. 

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Vatrano, 23, entered training camp at an important early crossroads in his career coming off two NHL seasons where he showed flashes of scoring, but never really put it all together for an extended stretch.

"I think my overall game needs to be better. I need to be a complete, 200-foot player and I think I just need to bring consistency night in and night out," said Vatrano in the first few days of camp. "Obviously your 'A' game needs to be there more consistently, but you also need to bring your 'B' game if the 'A' isn't there. This is my third year, so I feel a lot more comfortable being here having relationships with the guys and with the coaching staff."

It remains to be seen if that comfort level is a good thing or a bad thing for Vatrano, who still has quite a bit to prove in the NHL. 

Last season, Vatrano finished with 10 goals and 18 points in 44 games, along with a minus-3 rating, and played all six playoff games against the Ottawa Senators. This fall, however, both Anders Bjork and Jake DeBrusk have made strong pushes for NHL roster spots and by all accounts, Vatrano has been pretty average in the competition for a third-line spot.

Unfortunately for him, he’s competing with Matt Beleskey, Tim Schaller, Noel Acciari, Teddy Purcell, Danton Heinen and Sean Kuraly for the three final forward spots and that means somebody expected to be on the big club is probably going to fall short. Kenny Agostino was placed on waivers on Friday afternoon, so it would appear that he won’t be on the NHL roster to start things off after an injury-plagued camp.

It would be easier for it to be Vatrano because he doesn’t have to pass through waivers at this point in his young NHL career and because the Bruins are expected to put an emphasis on penalty-kill candidates given the mass number of face-off/slashing penalties in the preseason.

That all spells possible trouble for Vatrano as a sometimes power-play performer, but definitely not a guy who's been used extensively on the PK unit in his pro career. Instead, it might give bigger, grittier players Schaller and Kuraly a better chance of securing those final few roster spots and leave Vatrano excluded from a Bruins roster where he was thought to be a lock entering camp.

Clearly, Bruce Cassidy wasn’t happy with the middling effort after a 5-1 exhibition loss to the Flyers on Thursday night in Philadelphia and signaled a warning shot to camp participants currently on the bubble.  

“We weren’t competitive enough. The first period, we put ourselves in a tough spot, we took four penalties. A couple, I wasn’t sure what they were, but they’re tough to kill. We were playing against a good team,” said Cassidy. “We were on the road and then you get a couple of disallowed goals, it just seems like we were chasing the game the whole night. If that’s going to happen, you need your guys here pushing for jobs to give you energy to get you back in it. That didn’t happen either, at least not enough.

“I don’t know if there was a lot of [positive developments], to be perfectly honest. I’ll watch it again to see the things we did well. They were better than us. Like I said, the start didn’t help. These types of games during exhibition when you’re traveling the same day, you want to get off to a decent start to stay energized. We didn’t do enough to do that and we put ourselves in a bad spot.”

It remains to be seen if it’s too late for bubble guys like Vatrano to secure jobs with big performances in the preseason finale Saturday night against the Blackhawks, but the fact the Massachusetts native is in that position at all is a bad sign for the way his preseason has rolled out. 

Backes ready to give Bruins his best, something they need

Backes ready to give Bruins his best, something they need

The first couple of seasons with David Backes in a Boston Bruins uniform were supposed to be his best when he signed a couple of summers ago.

Backes was a 32-year-old signing a five-year contract with the Bruins that was a big commitment to a new organization after spending his entire pro hockey career with the St. Louis Blues. At the same time, it was also a significant investment by the Original Six team in an aging, big-bodied forward that would presumably provide size, strength, leadership and an alpha dog personality as he entered hockey middle age.

Conventional wisdom was that the B’s would yield enough out of Backes in the first few years, while he was still lingering on the back end of his prime, to make up for an aging high-impact player likely to be slowing down in the last few years of the deal all while carrying a significant $6 million per season salary cap hit.

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Instead, Backes has missed time with inflamed bursa sacs in his elbow and a couple of bouts with diverticulitis in his first two seasons, and he’s posted 19 goals and 42 points along with a minus-1 rating in 84 games. It’s nothing to be embarrassed about, of course, but it’s also not quite up to the standard Backes established as a longtime captain in St. Louis. Certainly not up to the 25 goals and 53 points of production that Backes averaged in his final three seasons with the Blues, and probably not what the B’s were hoping for when they signed him.

Some of that was Backes’ injuries and coming in and out of the lineup a few times over the course of a season. Some of it was certainly adjusting to a new city, a new organization and a new roomful of teammates. With Backes back and in the flow of things after diverticulitis surgery in October that removed 10 inches of his colon, now is the time for the 33-year-old to step up and produce in the way Boston expected in his first few golden years with the Bruins.

Backes has done that recently with a two-goal game against the Arizona Coyotes last week, and three points and 10 shots on net in his last three games while lining up with Danton Heinen and Riley Nash in a pretty well-balanced third line. He is finally heating up and providing some secondary offense, and some consistency from Backes could really be a game-changer for the Bruins.

“David has scored goals in this league, either 15 to 20, 22, 23, whatever the average number is every year,” said Bruce Cassidy. “We kind of found out at the end of [last year] at what he truly excelled at. I thought he did a really good job with Bergy and Marchy too, but moving him down allows better balance in our lineup.

“I think he enjoys being a mentor to Danton [Heinen] and to a certain degree [Riley] Nash, and it allows him to play his style of game where he has the most success. As long as it meshes with the way that we want to play, then we’re all happy. We’re seeing those results now, and as long as it stays that way we can focus on other things like who fits well with [David] Krejci.”

It would appear the stars are now aligned for Backes to be that high-impact player that can shoulder some of the heavy burden that high-end forwards Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Krejci have been carrying for the last couple of seasons. He can do that while headlining a third line that should be able to support everything that the top-6 guys are doing, and pick them up when they’re experiencing the rare quiet night.  

“I think David [Backes] is the leader in terms of how he wants that style of line to play. I think we talked about that at the start of the year…trying to find a way to build a line around him. Now we are starting to see that. That’s the type of line he wants, and now we have the pieces in-house here that are now starting to fit. It took us a while for different reasons – injuries or trying to find the right chemistry,” said Bruce Cassidy. “It looks like it’s falling into place. And I think the other guys are willing to do that as well. It’s one thing for him to ask [a line] to play a certain way if the players aren’t receptive to it. It’s like anything [when you’re acting as] a teacher.

“If the students aren’t willing to learn, it’s going to be tough. I think Danton Heinen wants to stay in this league. He’ll stay any way he can. Now he’s recognizing how to stay in it, early on with the [Sean] Kuraly, [Tim] Schaller and now you’re starting to see what he can bring to a line offensively. He’s certainly a good student, and [Riley] Nash, that’s his game. It complements him as well.”

The attitude of the Bruins is palpable when Backes is in the lineup whether he’s scoring, or simply carving out a big space and throwing some board-rattling hits at the opposition. He gives the Bruins a more courageous attitude by virtue of his toughness and a willingness to back up his words with action when it’s warranted.

It’s no surprise that he finds the silver lining to the adversity he’s faced in the last two seasons, and ways in which it can help the team. 

“It’s kind of the way things go. You’re not going to have a perfect road ahead of you,” said Backes. “That’s kind of been the story for the team as well where it’s been fits and starts, injuries and obstacles where we’ve had to build some character and resolve with the group, and an identity that can be very tough to play against as we go on.

“I’ve heard from more than a few guys on other teams that [they think] we’re going to be a tough team to play against going down the stretch.”

The same can hopefully be said for Backes as well. The expectation is that the big winger will get even better, more productive and more difficult to play against as he grows stronger and gets a chance to put together the best hockey of his Bruins career.

It’s what the Bruins have expected from Day One, and what Backes seems finally ready to supply after passing through all the challenges that have faced him since signing in Boston a couple of summers ago. 

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Morning Skate: Karlsson on his way out in Ottawa?

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Morning Skate: Karlsson on his way out in Ottawa?

Here are all the links from around the hockey world, and what I’m reading while the reviews from the Last Jedi start pouring in. 
 
-- USA Today takes an early look at the expected 2018 NHL free-agent class, which will be pretty good with players like John Carlson, James van Riemsdyk and John Tavares leading the way. But take a look at 2019: Tyler Seguin, Sergei Bobrovsky, Erik Karlsson, Drew Doughty. That’s the class that NHL teams should be saving their rainy day funds for.  
 
-- Erik Karlsson isn't concerned that he was asked to provide a no-trade list to Ottawa Senators management, but it sure sounds like the Sens are considering some major decisions right now as they struggle following last spring’s playoff run. 
 
-- PHT writer Adam Gretz has the details of Columbus Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella basically blowing off the media after an ugly loss on Tuesday night. 

 -- Does Auston Matthews have a concussion right now? That is the million-dollar question in Toronto. 
 
-- Johnny Gaudreau threw out a shootout move against the Minnesota Wild that was so nasty Bruce Boudreau was questioning if it was legal. 
 
-- The Calgary Flames are growing in confidence and building momentum as they forge ahead in the Western Conference. 

-- For something completely different: As the review pour in, here is a spoiler-free Last Jedi review from FOH (Friend of Haggs) Rich Shirtenlieb after he was able to get into a sneak preview earlier this week.