The return of the New England Patriots and the NFL season has garnered lots of attention from Boston sports fans, but the upcoming hockey campaign is right around the corner.
In fact, the Boston Bruins will hit the ice for competitive action Sunday when they travel to Washington for their preseason opener against the Capitals.
After a busy offseason that saw the B's add several players in NHL free agency, the competition for roster spots in training camp and the preseason will be fierce. The team also has several young players who will be competing with these older veterans for both spots in the lineup and ice time.
Here's a list of five players to pay close attention to during the preseason.
Jack Studnicka, C
The No. 2 center role is the most interesting position to watch for the B's -- not only during the preseason but the regular season as well. David Krejci's departure has created quite a hole in the top-six. While it's likely that veteran Charlie Coyle will start in this spot when the regular season begins Oct. 16, Studnicka should get plenty of looks in this role before that point.
Coyle is limited to begin camp after undergoing offseason knee surgery. This allowed Studnicka to begin camp alongside Taylor Hall and Craig Smith during Thursday's practice. Studnicka bulked up in the offseason, adding around 15 pounds of strength. It should allow him to absorb contact and protect the puck better than he did last season, when he failed to earn a regular role at the NHL level.
One of the best-case scenarios for the Bruins in 2021-22 is Studnicka showing he can be a legit top-six player in the near future. This is a massive year for the 2017 second-round pick in regards to proving he belongs in the NHL.
Jake DeBrusk, LW
There were a lot of rumors, debate and speculation in the offseason over DeBrusk's future in Boston. The B's chose to protect him in the Seattle expansion draft and didn't trade him. After a disappointing and frustrating 2020-21 campaign for DeBrusk, he should have all the motivation needed to enjoy a bounce-back season. When he's engaged, DeBrusk is capable of scoring goals playing a power forward-type style of hockey. The problem is he's too inconsistent, often going long stretches without scoring. And when he's not scoring, he doesn't give the Bruins enough in other areas of the game.
DeBrusk is entering the final year of his contract, so this is the perfect opportunity for him to get his career back on track. The 24-year-old winger has the talent to score 20-plus goals consistently. Reaching that mark in 2021-22 would give the Bruins much-needed scoring depth from their bottom-six.
Jakub Lauko, C/LW
Lauko is one of the B's top prospects and a talented offensive player. He plays with impressive speed, his shot is accurate and he shows good tenacity in puck battles. Unfortunately for Lauko, the Bruins have a lot of bottom-six depth, and particularly on the wings, after adding several veterans in free agency. It's probably going to be hard for Lauko to earn an NHL roster spot out of camp, but if he plays well over the next couple weeks, he could be the first guy called up when injuries open a spot in Boston.
Urho Vaakanainen, D
Vaakanainen was a 2017 first-round pick by the Bruins but he still hasn't been able to carve out a regular role at the NHL level. He's only played in 16 games for the B's in the four seasons since he was drafted. It's time for Vaakanainen to step up and show he belongs at the highest level.
He's a smooth-skating, two-way defenseman who doesn't make a ton of mistakes. Putting up eye-popping offensive numbers isn't his game, but he does need to contribute from a scoring perspective to earn a role. Showing a little more physicality would help as well. If Vaakanainen doesn't show meaningful improvement this season, then the Bruins should consider parting ways with him.
Derek Forbort, D
One of the Bruins' needs in the offseason was to find a top-four defenseman to play the left side of the blue line after defensive depth was an issue in their second-round playoff series loss to the Islanders last season. The only upgrade made in free agency was the signing of Forbort.
He's not the ideal choice for a top-four role, but he's probably going to play one in Boston. B's head coach Bruce Cassidy noted in August that Forbort could see time in Matt Grzelcyk's spot alongside Charlie McAvoy on the top pairing. Forbort gives the Bruins more toughness, shutdown defense and shot blocking in that role. However, his offensive game, playmaking and mobility are worse than Grzelcyk.
It's possible we could see quite a bit of the Forbort-McAvoy pairing, at least to start the season. They skated together Thursday during the first practice of camp. It'll be interesting to see how quickly these two defensemen can develop chemistry and if the pairing is even a match at all.
The Grzelcyk-McAvoy pairing worked so well last season and breaking it up isn't the best idea.