Bruins

Haggerty: Right fit for Backes one of camp's lingering mysteries

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Haggerty: Right fit for Backes one of camp's lingering mysteries

BRIGHTON, Mass – With the start of Providence Bruins camp bearing down on Monday, the Boston Bruins know their NHL training camp numbers will be thinning out very shortly. That won’t change some pretty established forward combinations that head coach Bruce Cassidy has been working with throughout camp thus far.

Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron have skated together consistently as they obviously should as one of the league’s most lethal duos, and they’ve been teamed with rookie Anders Bjork at right wing pretty consistently through camp. David Krejci and David Pastrnak have also been linked together for every practice, game and drill since the 21-year-old Pastrnak signed his new six-year contract, and it’s been rookie Jake DeBrusk with them for most of camp.
Matt Beleskey finished the night in Detroit with Krejci and Pastrnak, and one begins to wonder if that’s where the established, 28-year-old Beleskey finds himself when the regular season begins.

That may or may not change after the young left winger was taken off their line in Saturday night’s preseason debacle in Detroit, but the point stands that Krejci and Pastrnak are expected to be on the same line to start the season. The same would seem to be the case with Riley Nash and Noel Acciari as fourth liners that really established themselves toward the end of last season, and have had Tim Schaller and Jesse Gabrielle cycle through as candidates.

That leaves the Bruins third line where the choices aren’t quite as easy for Cassidy, and where there are several different options for the Bruins coaching staff. Ryan Spooner and David Backes played together an ample amount of time last season, and would seem to be a good combo where their very different strengths can complement each other. Sean Kuraly and Backes would certainly give the Bruins a big, bruising, North/South third line dimension, and showed how effective they could be in the first round of the playoffs against the Ottawa Senators.

Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson got some early looks with Backes as well, but it seems a foregone conclusion he'll start in the AHL after getting dinged up earlier this week in preseason action. Backes hasn’t been shy about his preference to see where this combo could take them given his preference for a bit of old school smash-mouth hockey.

“It depends on usage, and that conversation has yet to be had. Are we going to be a checking line that’s going to get the matchup against the other team’s top line, or if we’re going to roll three lines that can responsibly play against any line then the makeup of [the line] changes a little bit,” said Backes. “I think another big body to get pucks in and have that grind really wearing things down, and kind of setting things up for the line after us, is first and foremost on my mind.

“I think there are certainly plays to be made on entrances, but there’s a lot of times when there’s not. But starting up that grind game that’s there at times, the more often it’s there the better we are. It can be overwhelming for teams to have to be in their end for minutes on end, and get a fresh line change, while you’re still in the offensive zone. That’s how goals are created that aren’t made on the rush. In the second half of the game [against the Red Wings] with JFK not feeling so hot, Sean Kuraly and myself felt pretty good with his speed, his ability and just the unselfish type of “let’s go in here and grind” to make space for the other guys. I don’t know how it all sorts out or if they’ve A, B, C and D type of choices, but there’s still a great deal of camp. So hopefully that all gets sorted out, so we’re able to build chemistry with whoever it is.”

There are other pieces to be worked in like Frank Vatrano or possibly Beleskey if both of Boston’s rookie wingers stick on the NHL roster, but it would seem that the Bruins are facing a major philosophical decision with their third line after bringing Spooner back into the fold. Do they go big, strong and “crash and bang” with Kuraly and Backes, or do the Bruins try to amp up Backes’ offensive production as trigger man with Ryan Spooner setting him as a speedy, skilled playmaker?

“[Kuraly and Backes] enjoy playing together, and in the playoffs they had some level of success,” said Cassidy of Backes, who finished with an underwhelming 17 goals and 38 points in his first season with the Bruins. “At some point we have to get a look at that. Noel was in that mix. Do we want to add skill on the left side if Kuraly is in to complement them, or do we want kind of three North/South guys? Those are the things that training camp is going to answer. It’s difficult because if you’re building a heavier line, and you’ve also got a Ryan Spooner who is more of a skill guy with Vatrano speed. Now the questions will come what’s your third line? We’re going to do whatever is best to suit the team, and we’ll number the lines as we see fit afterward.

“But I think it’s important that Backes has the right type of chemistry player [on his line]. We’ve addressed the top two with Krejci and [Pastrnak] and Bergie and Marchand, so now we’ve got to find the proper fit for Backes for him to be an effective player for us. He’s a very good hockey player and we’ve got to make sure he plays with people that complement his game too.”

So what would this humble hockey writer do if he were making the hockey decisions?

Probably start Spooner with Backes and Vatrano on the third line to start the season given Spooner’s considerable talent on the power play, and what’s been a bit more determined effort to battle for one-on-one pucks in the preseason. There’s no harm in potentially keeping Kuraly as the 13th forward on the NHL roster, and then going to him if A) Spooner falls back into previous bad habits or B) the B’s coaching staff determines they need more of a punishing fore-check presence as they did mid-streak against the Sens in the playoffs.

It may not be perfect and the surplus of third line bodies may result in an early season trade given the need around the NHL for talented bottom-six centers, but the Bruins need to do whatever is necessary to consistently squeeze more production and quality shifts out of that group, and particularly out of Backes, this season. 

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Only five games into season, Bruins already sending off bad vibes

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Only five games into season, Bruins already sending off bad vibes

LAS VEGAS -- Even though it's only five games into a new regular season, it feels like the Bruins are in danger of going off the tracks.

They finished their three-game Western road swing Sunday with an aimless 3-1 loss to the expansion Golden Knights, which came on the heels of a wretched defeat in Colorado and a victory over the winless Coyotes. Sunday was particularly disheartening, as they never tested their ex-goalie, Malcolm Subban, putting only 21 mostly harmless shots on net against a player they gave away on waivers just a few weeks ago,

They may only have three losses in five games, but it sure feels like there's trouble starting to brew in Bruins land.

“It could be a lot of different things,” said Brad Marchand about the loss to Las Vegas. "We may not have been as mentally prepared for that game as we thought we were. They wanted it more than we did. They out-battled us in a lot of areas and they were the better team. We were making it hard on ourselves. We were trying to do too much with the puck, and not directing enough of the pucks toward the net. You can’t get rebound and you can’t get bodies there if the puck isn’t going there.”

That is a lot of different things. A lot of different problems:

-- They couldn’t fight to get to the front of the net against a rugged Vegas defensive group that was going to make them battle to get there.

-- Once again they had too many passengers along for the ride, with both Ryan Spooner and Frank Vatrano failing to even be a blip on the game’s radar screen. Spooner suffered a lower body injury midway through the game, but while he was out there he was a non-factor once again. 

-- It felt like there was no flow at all to Boston’s game, with breakouts dogged by sloppy passing and players who weren’t hard enough on the puck.

-- When they did get a chance to create something they either missed the net with their shot, or opted not to even take the shot in the first place. 

-- They lost 67 percent of the 57 draws taken during the game, and saw Spooner, Riley Nash and David Krejci and Ryan Spooner go a combined 8-for-29 in the face-off circle.

-- They chased the puck for long stretches and certainly didn’t ever put together anything approaching a consistent, driving pressure in the offensive zone.

Missing stalwart veterans like Patrice Bergeron and David Backes certainly isn’t helping. It makes the Bruins a much smaller group up front that can be pushed around by bigger, stronger defensive units.

But even so, there’s a sense the Bruins can’t consistently bring their 'A' game to the rink with them and don’t seem to have much fight when they fall down by a couple of goals. Trailing by just two goals going into the third period, the Bruins had four shots on net for most of the final period until a late flurry produced a score by David Pastrnak.

Perhaps of more concern, though, is the growing feeling that the Bruins aren’t all on the same page.

Marchand vaguely referenced that the Bruins weren’t prepared to play Sunday, and Tuukka Rask said he’ll no longer comment on anything except his own goaltending. Rask has always been candid and willing to be frank about any shortcomings after Bruins losses, but it appears that’s not something that is any longer welcome inside the B’s dressing room.

“I just try to go out there and give us a chance to win every night. That’s what I’m focused on,” said Rask. “I’m not going to comment anymore on team play that much. We can just talk about goaltending. That’s just the way it is. Sorry.”

Meanwhile, Krejci was similarly short in his postgame thoughts and started talking about avoiding pointing fingers after a frustrating loss.

“There’s no reason to point fingers," he said. "Yeah, we lost a game and it was a frustrating loss. But it’s just the fifth game of the season, so we don’t need to make a big deal out of it. We’re going to back to Boston, we’re going to work hard in practices and we’re going to get ready for the next game.”

Clearly, the fact this stuff is coming to the surface just five games into the season is a cause for concern. But it makes sense, given the way the Bruins are letting an easy portion of the season slip through their fingers.

In their first 10 games of the year, they're facing only one team that made the playoffs last season and they've got plenty of spaced-out stretches in the schedule to get off to a strong, healthy start. Instead they’re losing to subpar teams and highly unproven goalies, and doing so with a real lack of energy or purpose on the ice.

Certainly management would be smart to think about shipping underperforming players like Vatrano back to the AHL in place of Peter Cehlarik or Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson. And a few more games like Sunday’s snooze-fest could advance trade talks for a player like Matt Duchene.

But there aren’t going to be any easy answers. It comes down to hard work and hunkering down together as a team, and Sunday’s pitifully inept loss in a very winnable situation was yet another sign the Bruins aren't even close to being there yet.

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Spooner, McQuaid injured in Bruins' loss to Golden Knights

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Spooner, McQuaid injured in Bruins' loss to Golden Knights

LAS VEGAS -- The Bruins are already missing a handful of players to injuries, and they may have lost a couple more in Sunday’s loss to the Vegas Golden Knights.

Ryan Spooner was knocked out in the second period with a lower body injury, and Adam McQuaid was lost in the closing seconds of the third period when he was hit by a Colin Miller rocket from the point in his leg. McQuaid had to be helped to the dressing room after staying down on the ice for a few long moments, and the hope is that it’s the same kind of mostly harmless “dead leg” hit that allowed Kevan Miller to bounce back immediately from his Friday incident in practice.

McQuaid was spotted up and walking around in the visiting dressing room area postgame, so hopefully it’s nothing serious with one of the few Bruins giving everything he has on the ice each and every night.

Spooner finished with just eight shifts and 6:42 of ice time while failing to generate much offense, and went 1-for-4 in the face-off circle before getting shelved for the rest of the game. He just has a single point and is a minus-3 in four games this season and is once again has been pretty hard to notice on the ice during 5-on-5 play. It perhaps wasn’t a huge loss for the Bruins, given how much Spooner has been struggling to find baseline consistency, but the Bruins can’t continue to sustain injuries to their center men without those missing bodies beginning to take a toll.

The Bruins already have Paul Postma on hand if they take any injuries on the back end, but any more losses up front could mean the B’s dip into Providence where Peter Cehlarik, Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson and Kenny Agostino are all off to hot offensive starts.