Bruins

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

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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.

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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. 
 

Miller, Krejci game-time decisions tonight; O'Gara called up

Miller, Krejci game-time decisions tonight; O'Gara called up

BRIGHTON, Mass – It wouldn’t be a Bruins game this season if there weren’t some health question marks entering a game night, so the B’s will once again have a few players up in the air for the lineup tonight against the Buffalo Sabres.

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David Krejci (back) and Kevan Miller (upper body) were both on the ice prior to morning skate and Krejci participated in the optional practice, along with Patrice Bergeron and a handful of others on Saturday morning at Warrior Ice Arena. Krejci and Miller were termed game-time decisions based on the way things went this morning and Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy could have more lineup juggling in front of him based on those players.

Krejci said he was taking things “day-by-day”, but didn’t think it was going to be a long-term injury even if he misses the game.

“We’ll kind of take it day-by-day and we’ll see. I feel better than two days ago, so I guess we’ll be taking it day-by-day,” said Krejci. “I got hit in the last game and that forced me to leave the game. It’s a brand new injury and it just happened the other day. So that’s what it is.

“I don’t think it’s an injury that would be long term. It’s just one of these things that happens [during the games]. I wouldn’t lie to you if it was something that was a week or two weeks. We’ll just see how I feel later tonight. Injuries happen to every team. Hopefully, this is it for us here early in the season, and down the stretch, we’ll be healthy pushing for the playoffs.”

First the definite situations for the Black and Gold: Bergeron will play for the second game in a row and Paul Postma will be in the lineup, with Adam McQuaid shelved for the next couple of months with a broken leg. Beyond that, the Bruins could swing Miller from the left side to the right side if he plays, Charlie McAvoy could be added to the penalty kill and David Backes could end up playing some center if Matt Beleskey draws back into the lineup.

“We’ll probably move people around. [David] Backes, [Tim] Schaller has played some center over the years and obviously [Patrice] Bergeron looks like he’s going to play,” said Cassidy. “I think we’ll be okay. We sat out a forward the [Thursday vs. the Canucks], so we’ll move people around.

“Kevan will be a game-time decision, so we had a discussion about that and we’ll look into that as well. [Krejci] got hit in the lower back the other night, tried to finish and it’s one of those ones where at puck drop we’ll know.”

Robbie O’Gara popped on the Bruins roster on their team website early on Saturday afternoon, so the Yale alum will get the call if Miller can’t answer the bell on Saturday night. Another piece of good news: Noel Acciari skated with the injured players ahead of the morning skate and appears to be progressing slowly from his broken finger.  

Anything, it seems, is possible for these banged-up B’s as another body drops with each passing game or practice. Here are the projected line combos and D-pairings vs. the Sabres based on an optional morning skate:

Marchand-Bergeron-Bjork

DeBrusk-Krejci-Pastrnak

Schaller-Nash-Backes

Beleskey-Kuraly-Agostino

 
Chara-McAvoy

Krug-Carlo

O’Gara/Miller-Postma

 
Khudobin

Bruins goalie decisions may become tougher than you might think

Bruins goalie decisions may become tougher than you might think

BRIGHTON, Mass – The good news for Tuukka Rask on Friday is that there was no dark, quiet room required for the Bruins goaltender when he reported to the Warrior Ice Arena practice facility for treatment for his concussion.

Instead, the Bruins goalie got going on the concussion protocol after getting steam-rolled by Anders Bjork at practice on Wednesday morning and started the road back to recovery from his first concussion suffered at the NHL level. In the further good news department, Bruins backup netminder Anton Khudobin stepped up in Rask’s absence and stopped 26-of-29 shots in a winning effort over the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday night.

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So now Khudobin has twice as many wins as Rask in half as many starts in the opening two weeks of the season. That’s certainly good for the Russian backup that stumbled out of the starting gate last season but has really fortified his spot early this year with a strong training camp followed by a .928 save percentage and 2.16 goals against average this year.  

“I’ve been there before. I’ve played many games in a row before in the AHL and the NHL, so it’s the same routine. It’s just harder to be honest when you’re playing one game every two weeks or something,” said Khudobin. “I’ll talk to Goalie Bob about what I did good or bad, get ready for practice, stretch it out and warm it up, go get it at practice and get ready for the games.”

That’s in stark contrast to Rask, who has a pair of losses to the worst team in the NHL last season, the Colorado Avalanche, and a defeat out in Las Vegas where he was out-dueled by Bruins castoff Malcolm Subban. The defense hasn’t been particularly good in front of him in those games and the team only scored a total of four goals in Rask’s three losses, but the All-Star netminder was also far from sharp with an .882 save percentage to start the season.

The home loss to Colorado, in particular, was a poor performance from Rask where he buried his team with an early deficit once a couple of soft goals by him in the first period. Compounding the lack of quality play from Rask was his odd choice to cease talking about team performance with the media following the loss to the Golden Knights.

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

It certainly sounded and felt like Rask was directed to only talk about his own play by somebody higher up in the Bruins organization, and it was that kind of a development rather than the Bruins goalie passive-aggressively dissing his teammates. But that kind of directive from the organization would also speak to some pre-existing friction between Rask and his teammates where past criticism has perhaps rubbed some of them the wrong way.

It felt that way when Rask and David Krejci spoke about things in a tense dressing room in Las Vegas following last weekend’s loss, and it felt that way late last season when the Finnish goalie stayed home in Boston while watching Khudobin win one of the biggest games of the season in Brooklyn against the Islanders. At times in the past, something hasn’t always felt quite right about the dynamic between Rask and the rest of the Bruins, and it’s not a particularly good sign that both parties seemed to already be headed down that path just five games into this season.

All of this makes for some very interesting timing with the Anders Bjork collision into Rask that knocked him for a loop, and has now opened the door wide for Khudobin to start a few games in a row. Should Khudobin play well and continue to backstop a winning hockey team playing hard in front of him, it will make for a much tougher goalie decision than some might anticipate. Rask is clearly the better goaltender in terms of talent, upside, resume and accomplishments over the last eight years, but the question becomes how much is that offset by the Bruins team potentially playing a better brand of hockey with Khudobin between the pipes.

Maybe it’s because Khudobin is the backup and the Bruins are trying to play tighter defense in front of him, but it’s hard to argue the fact that Boston seems to play a smarter, stronger game when the backup gets the call.  

“That’s what I’m there for, but at the same time, I wasn’t thinking, 'Oh maybe [Rask] is going to get hurt and he’s not going to play [the next few games].' I’m not thinking that way, definitely,” said Khudobin. “I was just focusing on my practice. Whatever coach is going to tell me after the practice, then I will keep moving from that point.”

The best-case scenario for the Bruins is that Khudobin plays good, strong, winning hockey in Rask’s absence and that in turn lights a fire under the No. 1 goaltender after he looked fairly laissez-faire in his first few games this season. That’s what everybody saw out of Rask late last season when he was called out by the Bruins coaching staff and challenged by a red-hot Khudobin pushing for some big game starts.

Perhaps that is exactly the kind of collective kick to the hockey pants that’s needed for Rask to start carrying the Bruins team once he gets healthy again.

A deeper question, however, would involve asking how much longer the Bruins want to hitch their wagons to a $7 million a year goalie that needs to mentally recharge his batteries from time to time, and who begins to wilt performance-wise if he makes more than 55-60 start in an NHL season. Members of the Rask Fan Club will point to his career .922 save percentage, but it's been three years since he's been able to consistently reach that level of performance. 

The older Rask, 30, gets, the more baggage is getting added on with a performance level that’s dropped from his Vezina Trophy-winning days. Some of that is clearly about the defense getting a makeover in front of him, but it’s also about Rask just not always being as consistently good when Boston needs him most in the big games.

Khudobin certainly wouldn’t be the long-term answer for the Bruins, and the jury is out on whether or not Zane McIntyre has a future in the NHL as a goalie. So there’s no long-term solution if they suddenly decided to go away from Rask for any reason. But if this humble hockey writer was coaching the Bruins and Khudobin goes on a winning tear over the next few weeks? A healthy Rask wouldn’t automatically be handed his No. 1 workload upon his return, and it would be a couple of goalies splitting time to decide who wants it more.  

That kind of situation might not be up to goaltender controversy standards at this early point in the season, but there’s nothing wrong with making Rask grind for it a little when he does come back after breezing through some early season losses. 

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