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Haggerty: It's time for Bruins forward prospects to step up

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Haggerty: It's time for Bruins forward prospects to step up

If last season was the year of the young defensemen with both Brandon Carlo and Charlie McAvoy breaking through at the NHL level, this should be the year of the forward for Boston’s stocked prospect group.

Bruins general manager Don Sweeney has made no secret that a couple of key positions up front are going to be open for competition, and that competition has officially begun with the start of B’s rookie training camp this week. The Bruins kick off their rookie camp with a Friday afternoon tilt against the Pittsburgh Penguins rookies, and continue on with games against the Devils and Sabres ahead of next week’s start to NHL training camp.

“We’ve always stated that we want to be a deeper team, a deeper organization from top to bottom.

"You have to have players that can push through, and push other players out,” said Sweeney. “We potentially have spots open, but we also have incumbents that don’t want to give spots up, players that broke through last year that are going to want to continue their own progressions.

“We have younger players that are coming online, that as we’ve laid out, the opportunity is going to be there and you’re the one that’s going to have to take advantage of that. We’ve seen players come out of the gate strong and then have sort of. . . as the rest of the players and the rest of the league gets better they kind of stay at the same level and realize that they have more work to do and that could happen. But we’re excited about the competition.”

The competition may certainly include a surprise or two in the bottom-6 where Sean Kuraly may earn a spot after last spring’s playoff heroics, raw prospects like Zach Senyshyn and Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson will try to show they are ready with virtually zero pro experience, and young up-and-comers like Jesse Gabrielle will be hungry to impress Bruins management. But there could also be some very important roles up front where Bruins prospects will be given first priority to win NHL jobs over the next month. Clearly, there may be many different permutations where forwards will be mixed and matched during training camp, but the B’s need to find a skilled, finishing answer at left wing alongside David Krejci. That’s all assuming David Pastrnak is signed, sealed and delivered to Boston sometime soon for Krejci’s right side as he was for most of the season’s second half.

There may also be a job opening at right wing alongside Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand as well, and that would be a plum assignment for any player looking to break into the NHL with a bang. So it’s a perfect time to be a Bruins forward prospect based on opportunity and timing meeting together at the ideal juncture. That's exactly where Anders Bjork, Jake DeBrusk and Danton Heinen find themselves on the cusp of NHL readiness.

Bjork is a natural left shot that’s played mostly right wing during his career at Notre Dame, and arrives with the most amount of hype as a speedy, gifted forward that could theoretically fit into either available spot. Bjork’s lack of pro experience also makes him the biggest question mark among the hopefuls, but the 21-year-old has already looked comfortable skating with the big boys at captain’s practice over the last week.

“It’s obviously exciting, but my focus is doing the best I can. Whatever game it is whether it’s preseason, rookie camp or whatever, my biggest focus is trying to win the game and do all I can to help the team win,” said Bjork, who finished with 21 goals and 52 points in 39 NCAA games last season. “There’s definitely [NHL] opportunity, but it’s opportunity that has to be earned. I’m just trying to do that.

“Guys like [Bergeron and Marchand] don’t really make mistakes. It’s kind of crazy to watch. It’s exciting and inspiring at the same time. It seems like a dream watching those guys when I was growing up, so it’s exciting that there’s a potential to play with them. But it’s going to take a lot of work and a lot of focus.”

Heinen is the most seasoned of the three players after playing pro hockey for portions of the last two years, and the only one of the three with any NHL experience whatsoever. The 22-year-old admittedly struggled during his time in Boston going scoreless in eight games, and looked thoroughly invisible during his forgettable stints with the big club. But Heinen caught fire in the second half of the season with Providence and was a dominant point-per-game force (nine goals and 18 points in 17 playoff games) for the P-Bruins during their run through the AHL playoffs.

The high arc to his first full pro season has Heinen entering this training camp full of confidence, and ready to show all the offensive skills that made him an offensive stud during his time at the University of Denver.

“You learn how strong guys are and how hard they are on pucks, and you get a little better in those areas,” said Heinen, of his takeaway from last year’s experiences in Providence and Boston. “I did a bunch of work with skating coach this summer to be a little more efficient out there with my skating. It was a big confidence-booster for me to produce in the playoffs and during the big moments [for the P-Bruins].

“I don’t think I played as well as I can when I was up [in Boston]. I know I can play here. Mentally I might not have been ready, and now I just have to have that confidence that I can play here. Confidence is huge for me, and I felt really good down there. Now I just need to bring that into camp.”

Lastly the only first round pick of the bunch, Jake DeBrusk, similarly seems on a path toward getting a long look for a top-6 job with the Bruins. DeBrusk may be the most natural left wing of the three forwards and that may tilt him toward being a favorite to end up on Krejci’s line when it’s all said and done. The 20-year-old finished strongly last season for Providence and was considered for a call-up based on his productive rush in the AHL season’s second half. It never happened last season for DeBrusk as the Bruins were wise not to rush his development, but that has put him prominently in the mix for an NHL job this fall.

The one question about DeBrusk is his ultimate ceiling in the NHL after finishing with 19 goals and 49 points last season, but he feels the time is now for him to find out.

“I think the whole year of development helped me to get to where I am today,” said DeBrusk. “Grinding it out last year is going to help me going into this camp, but it makes me very comfortable going into this season. It’s pretty exciting. They’re looking for a good competition and they’ve got a lot of [young] guys vying for those spots. I’m just lucky to be one of them.

“I understand that and realize that. I’m really looking forward to fighting for a spot and trying to earn it. It’s going to be really competitive because we all want it really badly. It’s going to be execution and timing with certain things, but I’m really looking forward to getting it going.”

There are fallback options like free agent signee Kenny Agostino, and Frank Vatrano is still young enough at 23 years old to reclaim a prominent role on the wing in Boston, but it feels like the future is now up front for the Black and Gold. They’re counting on one or two of these forwards to pop this season just like Carlo and McAvoy did last year, and help fill in some of the existing blanks on Boston’s NHL roster.

Judging by the talent level of the players involved, it’s a safe to bet a couple of these prospects are ready for that kind of intense spotlight. 

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Brutal loss shows Bruins reaching their limit for injuries

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Brutal loss shows Bruins reaching their limit for injuries

BOSTON – It feels like the Bruins might finally be hitting their critical mass with all of the injuries in the first few weeks of the season.

The B’s were down Tuukka Rask, Adam McQuaid, Kevan Miller and David Krejci as the new injuries Saturday night and clearly missed those players, along with the others currently out with injuries in a 5-4 overtime loss to the Buffalo Sabres at TD Garden. The Bruins had a three-goal lead in the second period and a two-goal lead in the third but frittered away both while allowing the hapless Sabres to outshoot them 21-6 in the third and overtime.

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Anton Khudobin battled his rebound control for most of the game while facing 42 shots on net but it was the absence of Miller and McQuaid in the D-zone that made it a little too easy for Buffalo to push Boston when it mattered late.

Torey Krug was on the ice for the last three of Buffalo’s goals and was out penalty killing late in the third period in a spot where he would never have been in if the B’s were healthy on the back end.

“That’s where the appreciation comes in for the Kevan Miller’s and the Adam McQuaid’s of the world. They’re not always flashy, but in those instances, they’re money. They get it done. And that’s why they are paid to get it done,” said Bruce Cassidy. “So yes, we miss them. But, last week we missed other players. So the guys that are out there, it’s up to them to get it done, right?

“It didn’t happen tonight, and hopefully we learned from it and can be hungrier the next time. There’s not much else to analyze that. That was it. Someone had to play in that situation. We pick guys who we figure would get the job done, and it didn’t work out for us. Next time, we’ll keep working at it.”

As part of the injury factor, there are also players that are banged-up and back in who are also clearly not back to full strength. Patrice Bergeron (lower body) and David Backes (diverticulitis) are both back from their early-season issues and Krug continues to play with a healing fractured jaw, but all three key players combined for just a single assist and three shots on net in a game that featured nine goals.

Krug was the most noticeable weak link in the loss as he was overwhelmed in the D-zone on the game-tying goal when an Evander Kane shot bounced on him on its way into the goal. Krug was down on his stomach after losing his balance while battling in front of the net. Krug then was out for an extended period in OT before bumping a Sabres player around the crease who fell into Khudobin just as Ryan O’Reilly was pushing the game-winning goal past him.

Krug spoke on Saturday morning about feeling like things were starting to come together for him but he finished a minus-3 against the Sabres with his big, bad teammates out with injuries. He's a startling minus-8 after the first two weeks of the season.

“Obviously we have to do a better job tonight. Two-goal lead in your own building, it’s got to be the hardest place for the opposing team to come in and overcome that. We’ve got to be better,” said Krug. “I thought I had an opportunity to win a battle in the corner on that loose puck. Just trying to swat away and all of a sudden it comes out the other side, and we just couldn’t overcome. That’s survival mode. “Especially when they were able to make changes like they were. We just got to stay calm, composed, and make sure we’re not getting beat one-on-one. We obviously managed it for a while, but we just couldn’t get the puck back.”

It was also clearly about Khudobin, who had a big chance to put the Bruins team on his back with Rask out with a concussion. The Russian netminder made 37 saves and at times looked energetic and ready to battle between the pipes but at other times couldn’t make the clean save that the Bruins needed in order to get a whistle and calm things down. In OT, Khudobin couldn’t make a clean glove save on a Rasmus Ristolainen tester from the high slot that would have allowed the Bruins to get some tired players off the ice in the 3-on-3 OT.

Instead, Krug, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak were out on the ice for 2 minutes, 15 seconds and eventually got beaten on O’Reilly’s play that took the puck straight to the Boston net. Cassidy called it an “erratic” night for Khudobin when they needed calmer, more poised play from their goaltender and that was clearly a reflection of the Black and Gold missing Rask.

“[Khudobin] was erratic. He battles. We love that about him. He battled to the end. [He] certainly made his share of saves. We need to be better in front of him,” said Cassidy. “But there were times that, there were fires that needed to be put out [on plays] that shouldn’t have been necessary. But that happens sometimes.

“[There were instances] in the third period, plus overtime, where we needed to calm the game down. Whether it’s a face-off, even right before the overtime goal, we had opportunities to get possession out of that pile. They came out with it. And that’s what I said. They were hungrier than us. Late, they won more pucks. If we win that puck out of that pile, we might not be talking about losing. Maybe we get out of trouble and it goes our way. We’ll never know.”

Maybe things would have gone the Bruins way if they had more of their walking wounded back and contributing. Instead, it feels as if the B’s are being tested with new, damaging injuries with each passing day. A number of those had a direct impact on a brutal loss to the Sabres on Saturday night. One has to wonder if there are more of those coming until the Bruins can start stabilizing their medical situation. 
 

Pastrnak on B's loss: "We kind of stopped playing"

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Pastrnak on B's loss: "We kind of stopped playing"

BOSTON – At the end of the day, it was simply a game where the Bruins allowed themselves to get outworked in the third period and overtime. 

The B’s held a three-goal lead in the second period and still enjoyed a two-goal lead in the third period, but eventually dropped a frustrating, futile 5-4 overtime loss to the Buffalo Sabres at TD Garden on Saturday night. It was clear to most speaking after the game that the Bruins eased up on the gas pedal once they’d scored their fourth goal of the game in the second period, and simply watched as the Sabres stomped all over them in the game’s second half. 

“I think we might have been a little bit too scared to play [in the third period], you know? We tried to just flip the pucks away, and didn’t make any plays trying to get it in the zone. Instead we should have just kept going like we did in the first two periods,” said David Pastrnak, who scored a pair of goals early in the loss to allow the Bruins to build up the three-goal lead. “Obviously we’re disappointed. We got one point. I think we didn’t play our game in the third period. We kind of stopped playing and they were all over us, and you know, it’s on us. We were the ones that gave them their point, but the first two periods were good. It’s just another learning session.”

To Pastrnak’s point, the Bruins were outshot by a 15-6 margin in the final 20 minutes of regulation and 21-6 overall in the third period and overtime prior to Ryan O’Reilly’s game-winner during 3-on-3 play. It was at this point the Bruins certainly missed stalwart stay-at-home defensemen Adam McQuaid and Kevan Miller in the D-zone, and fell short of qualified penalty killers while trying to burn off a Brandon Carlo interference call at the end of the third period. 

All of that caught up to them once the Bruins loosened their grip on the Sabres, but certainly the feeling is that the loss should’ve been avoidable even if some of the circumstances made it difficult for the Black and Gold. It also should have been avoidable against a Sabres hockey club that was dreadful last season, and is again one of the doormats in the Atlantic Division in the early going thus far. 

“Those are the games you can’t lose. We obviously didn’t do the job there in the third and close it out, but we’re going to have to regroup and work on our game and be better for the next one,” said Brad Marchand. “We didn’t play the game we needed to play. We relaxed a bit and we started losing a few battles in the wrong areas, and you know, they just played better than we did.”

It’s mystifying that any team would need a crash-and-born loss like Saturday night in order to learn any lessons moving forward, and it certainly might have been a different story for the Bruins if they weren’t missing a few big defensive pieces. But that’s not how it went down for the Black and Gold as they sagged under rising pressure from the Sabres, and simply stopped working when the chips were on the table late in Saturday night’s game.