Surplus of 'qualified candidates' means a good Bruins player may be cut


Surplus of 'qualified candidates' means a good Bruins player may be cut

BRIGHTON, Mass. – With the majority of Bruins players still healthy and rookies Jake DeBrusk and Anders Bjork appearing ready to handle frontline NHL duty, it is going to be a fascinating battle for forward spots at the end of camp. 

The Bruins have a boatload of forwards on one-way contracts and clearly not enough spots. That reality set in as the training camp group has settled into one massive practice unit at Warrior Ice Arena.


Bruce Cassidy prefers to work in pairs with his forwards to find chemistry and combinations and it certainly looks as if Riley Nash and Noel Acciari are locked in as a fourth-line combo while Ryan Spooner and David Backes would seem like an inevitable third-line combo based on their skill and respective NHL resumes.

That leaves a number of players, including Frank Vatrano, Matt Beleskey, Sean Kuraly, Kenny Agostino, Teddy Purcell, Tim Schaller, Austin Czarnik and Danton Heinen battling for three final roster spots, a pair of wing spots in the bottom-six and a reserve spot for the 13th forward. The third and fourth lines Wednesday at practice were Kuraly/Spooner/Backes and Beleskey/Nash/Acciari. That gave everyone an indication of which players had the upper hand for NHL jobs with just two preseason games (tonight in Philly, Saturday in Chicago) before the Oct 5 season opener against Nashville at TD Garden. 

Cassidy recognizes that there’s a surplus of “qualified candidates” for NHL jobs still skating around in training camp and that was something done by design in the offseason.

“We feel like there’s a lot of, for lack of a better term, qualified candidates for those [bottom-six] spots,” said Cassidy. “Some of that was by design when Donnie [Sweeney] was building the roster in the offseason. We talked about working in some of these younger players, but there needs to be a margin for error there if it wasn’t going to work,” said Cassidy. “[The surplus of forwards] is for that reason and to build up our organizational depth up was another reason. We saw it last year in the playoffs with our defensemen, so we’re trying to guard against that and make sure we’ve got quality people if it becomes a ‘next man up’ situation.’

“So far, so good. We’ve had good efforts from guys that all realize that the competition is there, and that should make your team better. You might have one lineup on Thursday, but that doesn’t mean another player can’t push their way into the lineup the week later. Sometimes you get locked into the opening night roster, but there are a lot of hockey games [in a regular season]. So there is that to consider as well.”

One really interesting thing that could play into all of this is the game-to-game needs of the team and the way that the Bruins coaching staff could tailor their game-day lineups based on matchups. If they want a big, heavy fore-checking line they can put Kuraly and Backes together, or if they think the penalty kill will be a big factor then Kuraly and Schaller could be bigger factors. If the coaching staff is looking to boost the offense then Vatrano paired with Spooner would be the right combination.

The special teams’ ability, in particular, might help Schaller and Kuraly, who can kill penalties, and could hurt Agostino, who hasn’t been pegged for much special-teams duty in the preseason.

“We’re going to get a little bit of everything, particularly if you’ve got Spooner at center with his speed and Backes at one of the wings. He’s a heavier guy that likes to cycle pucks, and then if you’ve got Kuraly there he’s got some speed and likes to play the cycle game,” said Cassidy. “Or you’ve got a high-end rush sort of line if you throw in an offensive rush guy like Vatrano. At the end of the day it depends who those guys are for what kind of line it is, but regardless it’s going to be something of a mixed bag.

“I don’t think we’re going to have a situation where there’s going to be a 13th guy, and the other 12 guys are clearly up above him. It’s not shaping up that way right now. Certain nights early on how many penalties are going to be called? Early in the preseason, you’ve needed a boatload of [penalty] killers, and it will be paramount early in the year if there’s a lot of penalties called. It could slant more towards that early on.”

The best guess here is that Beleskey, Kuraly and Vatrano end up as the final three to make the squad, which could leave Agostino and Schaller open to being claimed by any of the other 30 NHL teams in the waiver process. Still, it should also be a signal to Bruins veterans such as Vatrano and Schaller that protecting their NHL roster spots could come down to their performance in the final two preseason games and could also be predicated on which players aren’t yet subject to the waiver process. 

Haggerty: With Donato's debut, B's circle of life complete

Haggerty: With Donato's debut, B's circle of life complete

BRIGHTON – If you stay in the NHL for long enough, the hockey circle of life becomes complete for any player.

Sometimes it might be coaching the son of a former teammate or a former NHL player watching their kids suit up against guys they used to play against. Much more rarely, it might be father and son playing on the same team as the late, great Hall of Famer Gordie Howe did with his sons at the tail end of his brilliant career.

Much more common are NHL players sticking around long enough to play with sons of their former teammates. Such was the case with Patrice Bergeron, 32, skating at practice on Monday with the newly signed Ryan Donato. Bergeron couldn’t help but feel a little old at the notion, but immediately went back to his days as an 18-year-old NHL rookie playing with Teddy Donato in the final season of his NHL career back in 2003-04.

“It’s definitely different. When I was an 18-year-old coming in [to the NHL] I was playing with his dad, and that year [Ryan, as a little kid] was skating a few times after practice and I was there,” said Bergeron, going into the way-back machine to when he was the youngest player in the league in his first season. “Now he’s in the locker room and going to be a part of the team. He comes from a great family. I just hope I can help him as much as Teddy [helped me].

“It certainly doesn’t make me feel any younger. I still think I am, and that I’ve got a few good years ahead of me. It’s a little weird to see that, but that where I am in my career, I guess.”

Clearly, the memories of the younger Donato are notable for Bergeron, and they are doubly so for a young guy in Donato who's idolized No. 37. In fact, Donato said he was blown away that Bergeron even remembered him when they bumped into each other at the summer pro league in Foxboro a couple of years back.

It was a long way away from Bergeron heading over to Donato’s house for pool parties when he was still a teenager just starting to make NHL waves.

“This is what kind of guy Patrice Bergeron is...he was around the house a little bit when I was a little kid and he was a rookie in the NHL,” said Donato, telling the story at last summer’s development camp after dominating the rest of his Bruins prospect peers for a week’s time. “I hadn’t seen him for a pretty long time, and then he saw me in Foxboro a couple of years ago and said ‘Hey Ryan, how’s it going?’

“That’s pretty cool when your idol and the player you most look up to can remember you like that. It says a lot about him as a person, and we know what he’s all about as a player. He’s just a great of the best.”

It was when Donato retold that story to that we had a pretty good idea he wouldn’t be signing anywhere else but with the Black and Gold.

Bergeron and Donato won’t get to play together at the start, unfortunately, with the Bruins franchise center still out with a fractured right foot. That’s part of the reason the Donato, who turns 22 April 9, is being brought in with Bergeron, David Backes and Jake DeBrusk down with injuries and the Bruins in need of some dynamic wingers with offensive pop. Clearly, Donato has proven everything he needs to at the collegiate level with 26 goals in 29 games this season at Harvard and he was Team USA’s most dynamic player in PyeongChang with five goals scored in the tournament.

It’s still unclear how much of an impact Donato is going to make jumping straight from the NCAAs to the NHL, but he’s ready to start living out his NHL dreams with the Bruins team that also drafted and developed his dad 30 years ago.

“It’s a whirlwind. Right now it’s pretty crazy. Obviously, I’m really excited," he said. "It’s something I don’t want to happen too fast so I can cherish every second of it. Right now it’s a lot of fun,” said Donato, who signed his two-year, entry-level contract on Sunday. “Even going out for [the morning skate] was a dream come true. It didn’t even feel real yet.

“I just want to play well and do whatever I can to help the team. I just want to go in confident and do what I can to help. At the end of the day, it’s just hockey and I’ve been playing it my whole life, so hopefully, I can play to the best of my abilities.”

With a strong Bruins support system headed by a couple of his father's former NHL teammates in Don Sweeney and Cam Neely- who have known him since he was a little kid - and a roster primed for a long playoff run, the younger Donato couldn’t be asking for a better situation to show what he can do in the NHL. 

Now, it’s up to Donato to show he’s a chip off the old block as the son of a former Bruins forward who scored 150 goals and totaled nearly 350 points in a distinguished NHL career. Perhaps it’ll give him a chance to show that he’s going to be even better than the old man, who was pretty darn good in Black and Gold.  



'Light at end of tunnel' for Bergeron's return

'Light at end of tunnel' for Bergeron's return

BRIGHTON, Mass – The long regional nightmare for Bruins fans might be coming to an end sooner rather than later.

That’s because Patrice Bergeron hopped on the ice on Monday morning at Warrior Ice Arena ahead of his team’s morning skate and then stuck around to jump in and out of drills while showing strong progress from his fractured right foot suffered at the end of February. 

Clearly,  Bergeron isn’t ready to play now and will miss his 11th consecutive game Monday night when the B's face the Columbus Blue Jackets on Monday night at TD Garden.

Still, it looks like No. 37 will be headed on the four-game road trip after the game and could potentially become an option to play at some point over the next week or two. Certainly, it’s a sign that Bergeron is going to be able to come back and play meaningful games before the playoffs. That’s something that has the 32-year-old excited after missing the past three weeks.

“It was nice to be back on the ice and skating. It felt good. It’s been a long three weeks, but it was nice to finally move forward and be on the ice. It was definitely nice to be on the ice with the guys,” said Bergeron, who skated on Sunday with Bruins Skating and Skills Coach Kim Branvold as well. “There’s definitely still some discomfort, but it’s a lot better. That was to be expected that it wasn’t going to be perfect when I was back right away.

“I’m seeing a light at the end of the tunnel right now being on the ice. We’re trying not to set a timeline right now, but just make sure I feel good and have my bearings on the ice. So far I’m happy with where we’re at.”

Certainly, it would be good timing if Bergeron returned soon when it appears David Backes (deep laceration on his right leg) is going to miss a week or two and Jake DeBrusk is out with no timetable for a return after getting dinged with a big hit in Carolina on Boston’s most recent trip.

Impressively, the Bruins have gone 8-2-0 since Bergeron has been out. Riley Nash has been a point-per-game player in March while filling in for No. 37 with three goals and nine points in nine games along with a plus-4 rating. Still, the Bruins all know their all-around game will rise to another level when they get their best all-around player back in the lineup and re-form what’s been the best two-way forward in the NHL this season with Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak.