Bruins

Spooner determined to play way Bruins want

Spooner determined to play way Bruins want

BOSTON -- Ryan Spooner had an inkling going into Bruins training camp that this season was going to be a challenge.

The Bruins were planning to move the 24-year-old from his natural center position, and instead install him on the left wing with David Krejci and David Backes on a forward line featuring three natural centers all at once. He was also coming off a 13-goal, 49-point season that saw him establish himself as an NHL caliber center with even greater offensive upside based on his blazing skating speed, and ability to create offense, particularly on the power play.

So the expectations were elevated for Spooner in his second full NHL season, and they would be there even while playing the wing position for the first extended time in his professional career. That would be a demanding spot for anybody and Spooner has been just okay thus far: three goals and eight points along with a minus-2 rating in 21 games for the Bruins.

He’s also been relegated to the fourth line for the last few games, and at times even been taken off the power play despite it clearly serving as one of his specialties. When asked about those moves, Claude Julien would either glibly chalk it up to general “coaching”, or simply turn questions about Spooner’s status back toward the player for his own explanation.

Clearly the Bruins have tried to get Spooner to adopt some of the same playing style improvements that have worked so well for 20-year-old David Pastrnak this season, but he’s been slower to fully embrace the puck battles and necessary board work. There are moments when it’s all happening for Spooner, and there are still times when he fades to the background with a passive style to his game.

Knowing all that, it was a good sign on Sunday afternoon when Spooner won a key battle along the side boards that eventually led to Dominic Moore’s opening goal in the 4-1 win over the Lightning. It was exactly what the Bruins want to see more out of with Spooner, and it’s something he’s still trying to drag out of himself.  

It’s also no coincidence that he found good skating legs in that game as well, and was noticeable despite limited ice time on the fourth line with Moore and Jimmy Hayes.

“I felt a lot better than I have in the past. I was playing a little bit, I guess, timid and kind of afraid [to start this season], but I’m 24 now. So I just got to go out there and I just have to play, and that’s what I’m going to do,” said Spooner. “I have been taken off the power play [at times]. I think that’s kind of a message to me that if I’m not playing how they want me to, then they are going to take that away from me.

“So at the end of the day, I think the power play is something that I do well and I think I can help out. I just have to go out there and I have to play, use my speed and my skill. That’s what I have been trying to do.”

It hasn’t been an awful start by any means for Spooner, who is on pace for 12 goals and 31 points and has managed to pump in a pair of power play goals already this season. It just hasn’t been all that it can be, and that part is up to the player.

Clearly there are other players with bigger names and bigger paychecks, Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci to name a couple, that have underachieved offensively for the Black and Gold as well. But most of those other players help the Bruins in different areas aside from pure offensive production, and those are parts of the game that Spooner hasn’t mastered despite working on his face-offs, trying to play stronger on the wall and simply attempting to survive defensively at a left wing position that asks for size and strength defensively.

What the Bruins wanted to see out of Spooner more than anything else was an aggressive, determined mindset, and a willingness to push the pace with speed and assertiveness that could exert pressure on the opposing team’s defense. Spooner did some of that with an assist and a plus-2 rating in 10:38 of ice time in the win over Tampa, but it merely registers as one game moving into the right direction for a player entering some organizational crossroads.

If he can provide the speed and playmaking natural to his skills then he might remain a member of the Bruins for the foreseeable future, and that would certainly serve Spooner just fine as he’s grown comfortable in Boston.

But more development detours in his still-maturing game could lead to a new start elsewhere, and a chance to establish his skill set with a different group. Spooner holds value around the league given his promise and skating game combined with last season’s production, and there’s little debate over that simple hockey fact.

One has to wonder about those possibilities if he continues to be an ill-fitting piece for Claude Julien’s system: would Spooner be one of the main pieces for a top-4 D-man Boston has searched far and wide for over the last couple of seasons, and is it inevitably trending toward an exit with things making the way like perpetual fourth line demotions and an organizational unwillingness to keep him at his preferred center position?

One thing is for certain: Spooner has the kind of tools that aren’t exactly plentiful in the Bruins organization, and he could come back to burn the Spoked B’s, like so many other offensively gifted players, if management makes too hasty a decision with him after placing him in a challenging spot during his second full NHL season. 

Jaroslav Halak steps up in goal for Bruins, and they're more than grateful

Jaroslav Halak steps up in goal for Bruins, and they're more than grateful

BOSTON – The Bruins would be best off not thinking too deeply about where they’d be if they hadn’t signed Jaroslav Halak back on July 1.

The goaltender they signed to be a backup has been much more than that this season, and sits second in the entire NHL in goals against average (1.77 goals against average) and save percentage (.945) this season. Halak also consistently chipped away at Tuukka Rask’s playing time after starting the season as the back-up, and stepped up in a major way to stop 77-of-79 shots this weekend in back-to-back wins over Toronto and Vegas as Rask stepped away for a personal leave of absence.

Halak stopped 37-of-38 shots against the Golden Knights in Sunday’s 4-1 win over Vegas, and was equal to the task as the Golden Knights got some pretty good chances against him with redirections and action in close to the net. When it’s all said and done, Halak is 6-1-2 in 11 games for the Bruins thus far this season and has really only had the one bad game in the blowout loss to the Canucks.

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Otherwise he’s been way better than the expectations and has given the Bruins the kind of steady, sometimes spectacular goaltending they’ve missed at the start of the last few regular seasons as Rask struggled.

“We’ve seen it from day one. We knew he was a good goaltender. I couldn’t sit here and say he’d be leading the league in save percentage, goals against, or whatever he is, first or second. We knew he’d be solid. He’s certainly exceeded expectations, and it’s what required right now,” said Bruce Cassidy. “He’s getting lots of starts, guys are confident in front of him and we’re starting to understand how he is.

“He stops a lot of pucks. There are pucks laying there that we’ve got to clear, so we’re starting to get that. Hey, converge the slot, get it out of there, get going and so how he plays the puck we’re reading off better each game. I’m happy for him. He’s a hard-working guy, and he’s had good success in this league. It’s required for him right now, and he’s giving it to us."

The Bruins are expected to meet with Rask on Monday and he may rejoin the team as shortly as Tuesday prior to a road trip out West. So Halak may be able to get some rest shortly as the B’s resume their planned tandem for this season, and perhaps Rask will even begin to push back if he’s been able to adequately resolve his personal matters.

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For now, though, Halak is in the middle of a hot streak that can’t possibly extend for the entire regular season, but the B’s and the goalie will ride it out for as long as it lasts.

“We knew we had to play better after the Vancouver game and you know, [Saturday], Toronto, they have a good team,” said Halak. “They traveled in and they tried to win in the first period and we were able to just kind of get out of the period and, like you said, to control our second and third and we played a great game. And then [on Sunday] we did the same thing.”

As Cassidy said after the game, “Just keep it going, Jaro.” 

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Looks like the Bruins have found a third-line answer with the kids

Looks like the Bruins have found a third-line answer with the kids

BOSTON – Don’t look now, but it seems like the Bruins are starting to find some answers for a third line that’s confounded them all season.

It’s too easy to call them the Kid Line and probably too on the nose to come up with some moniker centered around 22-year-old Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson’s “JFK” nickname, but it sure looks like 23-year-old Danton Heinen, JFK and 22-year-old Anders Bjork are finally gelling as a young, fast and aggressive third line. They kicked in a 5-on-5 goal and had some really promising, energetic shifts in Boston’s 4-1 victory over the Vegas Golden Knights on Sunday night, and showed how good the Bruins can be if they can start to get a little more consistency from all of their forward lines.

The caveat is clearly that it’s only been two games and JFK still has a long way to go as a bona fide NHL center, but in an important development the last few games are probably the best that both Heinen and Bjork have looked all season.

“I thought [Heinen, JFK and Bjork] had a good weekend. Obviously, they got a goal. It helps when you’re young. Before here you’re used to getting on the score sheet, so you get frustrated if you don’t. They got rewarded [and] it was a good goal,” said Bruce Cassidy. “They did it the right way, started in D-zone, they played it, they won a puck, got it behind their D, won a foot race and got it to the front of the net. So it wasn’t lucky. It wasn’t a fluke. It was the right way to do things, and they got rewarded for it.

“Hopefully that reminds them how they need to play. Then after that a few more pucks find them. They win some pucks down low. They’re attacking the net. I thought our fourth line was outstanding too, the [Sean] Kuraly line, so you get your bottom-6 really chipping in and that’s what it’s going to take for us to win on a consistent basis. I think we’re aware of that. Our top line is good. Our second line’s coming around. The power play generally produces, but at the end of the day you need balanced scoring to do it every night and we’re starting to see that the last three games. I think we’ve been much better in that area.”

In the last few minutes of the first period in a scoreless game, Heinen got the puck out of the defensive zone and kick started a give-and-go play with Bjork where a lead chip pass to space took full advantage of the right winger’s blinding speed. Bjork got behind the Vegas ‘D’ and then slipped a pass to a wide open Heinen in front of the net for the easy goal to get Boston on the board. It was Heinen’s second goal in the last three games, and the first real tangible signs that one of the B’s best rookies from last season was starting to get his game on track.

Really, it showed exactly what the kids are capable of when the confidence, skill, and youthful exuberance are all working together properly in tandem.

“I think it starts with us playing hard and especially attacking on the fore-check. I think JFK plays so well defensively and so does Heino [Danton Heinen] too. I think we have been solid there and, obviously we can improve a little bit,” said Bjork. “But that’s helped our transition game, which has helped us get in on the forecheck. That’s where we’ve created opportunities just by attacking and screening hard. Yeah, it’s been good. Hopefully we can continue that.”

The real key to unlocking the third line’s potential might just be Forsbacka Karlsson, who brings more speed, more skill and an ability to be the responsible two-way defender when Heinen and Bjork speed out in the transition game. JFK didn’t get on the board in his first two games, but he nearly set up Heinen for a goal on a beautiful wheeling cross-ice pass in his season debut and has adopted more of an attack mentality himself after being a little too passive in past experiences with the big club.

It’s even an improvement on training camp when both JFK and Trent Frederic weren’t quite ready to win the third line center gig, and that left the Bruins juggling David Backes, Joakim Nordstrom, Sean Kuraly and others as ill-fitting stopgap options until one of the kids was ready.

Well, it looks like JFK is finally ready to run the third line administration for the Black and Gold.

“Maybe [it’s] just time. Maybe [it’s] just expectations for us were high. I would guess that six weeks or whatever it is that he’s been down there after a full year, I would guess he’s hungry to be here and stay,” said Cassidy. “It’s kind of, what does the second go-around say? He had a quick indoctrination here against Washington a couple years ago, one game, and then goes down there and doesn’t play a lot with the big club and then preseason doesn’t work out.

“I think at some point the switch has to go off, okay this is what I need to do. I think he’s doing what we’re asking him to do, and he’s playing to his strengths. He’s still got a ways to go [and the] puck battles could be better, but I like the progress I’ve seen out of him. He seems to be a much more engaged player and that’s all we’re asking: be engaged every night. We’ll walk you through the rest, and hopefully you’re good enough to stay here.”

For now it looks more than good enough on the new-look third line, and that’s a great development for the Bruins. Now it’s up to the three kids to keep the energy and production up consistently, and provide the B’s with something they’ve been missing all season. 

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