BRIGHTON, Mass. – Bruins general manager Don Sweeney was adamant on Thursday that the door is open for several rookies to push their way into the NHL lineup based on dominant performances over the next month at B’s training camp.
The Bruins are sending 25 first-year pros and B’s prospects to Buffalo this weekend for a couple of preseason games against the Sabres and Devils prospects and they are very clearly in deep evaluation mode. There are a few names at the top of Sweeney’s list to watch closely in these games, but the GM also admitted that the organization’s lackluster finish the past two seasons puts Boston in a position where they can’t say “no thanks” to an inexperienced young player if he helps them win.
“Today was really about competition, and this is about [the rookies] careers, and our organization. We need to put the best players on the ice,” said Sweeney. “If [a young player] can pass somebody or the opportunity is there then take hold of it. Because this is really about competition from here on out, and I think we were very specific with that [when addressing the B’s rookies].
“Is there opportunity for a guy to make a jump? Yeah, their absolutely is…every day. I told them all today that the best players are going to play. If they far and away exceed the guys that are here, the incumbents that are here, then they’ll have an opportunity at the end. There are no blockers [for roster spots]. We’re in a situation where we need to get better and I’ve been adamant in saying that. If that [young player] is better [than the veteran] then he’s going to play.”
So, who are the small, select group of players with the best chance of outlasting the rest as things unfold over the next month?
Brandon Carlo looms largest, literally and figuratively at 6-foot-5, with the kind of mass size and physical strength that immediately sets him apart. If the 19-year-old stay-at-home, right-shot defenseman can also show the kind of puck-moving skills and poise needed to survive in the NHL on a nightly basis then he might just push the Bruins to move older, more expensive veteran Adam McQuaid off the roster.
Given that Boston has seven defensemen with NHL contracts in training camp, Bruins management will have to make a move with a higher-priced veteran should a young prospects Carlo, Jakub Zboril or Jeremy Lauzon clearly establish that they’re ready for the next level.
In a perfect world, Carlo might spend some time developing in the AHL before he’s thrust into a key spot on Boston’s back end and perhaps get his feet wet in pro hockey before logging heavy duty for the Black and Gold. All of the rookie B’s defensemen know they’ll need to really seize the spot and push a veteran out of a job in the NHL given Boston’s situation with their contracts.
“I’m looking forward to playing against bigger, stronger guys. That’s the level that I’m ready to play at after this summer,” said Carlo. “You’re going to have to seize that [NHL] spot and earn it. I’m going to do everything I can in camp to stand out in every way, and play up to my capabilities while keeping it simple. I don’t want to go outside my box. I want to do everything to show what I can do, and I hope that’s enough.”
There are more obvious spots open for competition up front for the Black and Gold, and the B’s could rally use a rookie forward or two to flash this month. The left wing spot alongside David Krejci is one the Bruins coaching staff will be looking to fill and the right wing position alongside Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand has been a difficult one to solve for the past few seasons. That’s where Danton Heinen and Jake DeBrusk come in at rookie camp. Zachary Senyshyn is on the shelf, and seemingly out of the picture, after undergoing an appendectomy last week.
Heinen has a bit more of the inside track on a playmaking winger spot given his two standout seasons at the University of Denver, but the 19-year-old DeBrusk has some undeniable offensive talent that made him a first-round pick little more than a year ago.
DeBrusk also has an unmistakable goal to be the last forward standing when it’s all said and done in camp and he could be a candidate to explode after being held to 21 goals last season when injuries limited him to 65 games as a junior player.
“There’s a chance to get better every day and be a sponge. There are things I can improve on, but the ultimate goal is to play for the Bruins,” said DeBrusk, who was selected 15th overall in the first round two years ago. “There are going to be a lot of competitive moment and competitive games, and it all starts in Buffalo at rookie camp. You need to get into the mindset where it’s time to ramp it up and get ready for the season.”
The Bruins rookies are most definitely ready after getting put through their fitness testing on Thursday and now it’s a matter of showing just how bright, and how immediate, the future is for the Black and Gold’s crop of talented young players.
That starts this weekend in Buffalo with Carlo, DeBrusk and Heinen leading the way in a perfect prospect world.