GLENDALE, Arizona – The Bruins have committed fully to the youth movement, so they’re fully aware of what they signed up for this season with young, first-year players Anders Bjork, Jake DeBrusk and Charlie McAvoy filling important roles.
They reaped the benefits on opening night when all three provided offense and led the Bruins to an impressive victory over Nashville. They’ve also witnessed an ensuing valley afterward when things leveled off. Bjork and DeBrusk have been a combined minus-10 with zero points in a pair of back-to-back losses to the Colorado Avalanche and McAvoy registered a season-low 17:49 of ice time in the Wednesday night loss in Colorado.
The two stunning losses clearly aren’t all on the rookies. There were plenty of veteran core players who struggled as well, but the difference in play for the team, and the rookies, within the first three games has been noteworthy. Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said shepherding the rookies through tough times was about two things: 1) Striking the balance between nurturing patience and challenging them and 2) those young players getting back to the basics of hockey.
“Probably [needing to] play inside a little more and getting to the net," Cassidy said. "We’ve talked about that they’re going to get a feel for how hard it is to hold onto to pucks in this league, so they know that. We’re trying to coach them up as far as the structure. I thought some of their reloads could have been better as far as going back through the middle of the ice, and their line gave up some rushes coming back at us. But that’s all stuff on the [coaching] staff to make sure they get up to speed.
“It’s up to them to do what they do best, which is attack, play inside and get to the net. Hopefully, they do a little bit more of that as a line. Some guys catch on quicker than others. We knew there would be consistency issues as every young kid goes through them. So we saw highs in the first game and some lows in the second game, and we saw them starting to come out of it in the third period [in Colorado]. We’re going to try to keep them confident, but also on their toes and aware of what needs to be better. Sometimes that’s a fine line for the young guys. They take it to heart, or they don’t take it to heart sometimes. We’re working our way through that with them. There are plenty of veteran guys here to pull us through while [the rookies] learn the ropes, and that’s what they need to do.”
DeBrusk had four shots on net against Nashville and scored his first NHL goal while attacking the net with speed and assertiveness. He’s had a combined three shots on net in the two games since and is looking to get back to aggressively attacking the net while using his surprising speed and growing strength to get there.
“I remember one of the big things last year [in the AHL] was staying consistent every game," DeBrusk said. "Obviously it’s a different league and it’s an 82-game season. It’s a long season. The last two games haven’t gone the way we wanted them to go as a group, and me myself there have been some mistakes and learning curves. It’s frustrating and it’s something you don’t want to have happen. You just learn from it and move on.
“The good thing is we have back-to-back games [vs. Arizona and Vegas], so you’ve got a chance to get back to .500 and fix some of those things. I think it’s the details in my game. It’s not just in the defensive zone, but all over the ice. I was a little too reckless on the fore-check and just lost my guys. It’s about wanting to do a little too much. It’s also just fronting more pucks and getting to the net more. That’s what I’m doing when I’m playing well and pucks seem to find me there.”
Bjork might have had his best game in the matinee defeat against the Avs when he had three shots on net but didn’t come away from with a point after notching an assist on opening night. The injury to Patrice Bergeron might be toughest of all for him after he’d build up chemistry with No. 37 and Brad Marchand throughout training camp as their probable right wing.
Still, the harsh truth is that Bjork has had zero shots on net in two of his first three NHL games after a very strong camp and needs to make himself more of a consistent factor for the Bruins with the speed and hockey smarts to make it happen.
McAvoy, 19, has had just a single shot on net in each of the two losses and is a minus-3 in those games but he hasn’t struggled to the degree that his fellow rookies have the past couple of games. He wasn’t generating enough offense, to be sure, but he did level Nathan MacKinnon with a clean, punishing open-ice hit while trying up the energy in the Monday matinee.He’s a little bit ahead of DeBrusk and Bjork in the physicality department and that’s allowed him to get assimilated pretty quickly to the NHL.
“We’re not using him a lot on the PK, so if it’s not a defenseman penalty then [McAvoy] and Krug are going to be our last pair we’d use because we’re saving them for offensive situations. He made plays [in Colorado], he’s up the ice and kept pucks alive and contributed to the goal doing that,” said Cassidy. “I’m fine with Charlie. On the first night, he got a little lesson against Nashville about trying to defend standing still, and he’s tried to play his 1-on-1’s with better angles. So he’s been good.
“[He’s got] composure. He’s a confident guy without being arrogant about it. He’s coachable, but when the puck drops he’s got good instincts for the game. I also think he’s a little underrated in his skating with the puck. I think he’s faster with it than he is without it. He fools some people with his ability to separate, and he’s strong on it. For a 19-year-old that’s rare. We’ve talked about some of the young guys learning the ropes on that, but he’s got some of those gifts that take a few years to develop.”
One thing to keep in mind when it comes to the rookie wingers or other scuffling Bruins (Ryan Spooner, Frank Vatrano): The B's have some talented reinforcements in the AHL that are red-hot right now. Peter Cehlarik is off to a strong start in Providence with two goals and five points in two games for the P-Bruins and Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson has two goals in as many games for Providence. Likewise, Kenny Agostino has a goal and five points in those two games for the P-Bruins and can go back and forth between the NHL and AHL for the next month after clearing waivers at the end of the preseason.
That line has been tearing it up for the P-Bruins to start to start the season and it won’t be long before those players are getting auditions for NHL jobs if the incumbents continue to struggle after a very promising start. It’s harsh, of course, but that’s also the way of the NHL world where it’s a bottom-line business based on present-day results, productivity and consistency. The Bruins need to see more of all of those from their young guys this weekend in Arizona and Vegas as they look to stop the bleeding of a two-game losing streak.