7 takeaways from Bruins’ first scrimmage of 2021 training camp

Photo by Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

The Bruins held their first extended scrimmage of training camp on Thursday, with Team Black earning a 4-1 victory over Team White at Warrior Ice Arena. Here are some takeaways from the extended on-ice session. 

Pushing the pace: 

With the Bruins now just a week away (!) from the start of regular-season play, time isn't on Boston's side when it comes to Bruce Cassidy and his staff getting an extended look at this roster and evaluating where best to plug in players across a lineup with plenty of potential vacancies.

Thankfully for the B's bench boss — conditioning and intensity were not a problem on Thursday, as both squads spent most of the 60-minute exhibition battling along the boards, pushing the puck through the neutral zone and generating quality looks in Grade-A ice. A sharp showing from Tuukka Rask, Jaroslav Halak, Jeremy Swayman and Dan Vladar helped keep the contest from turning into an All-Star Game scoring bonanza, but Cassidy was pleased with the performance of his roster in multiple facets of the gate, especially when it came to his defense's efforts of supporting O-zone play — which Cassidy stressed back in September as being a priority for this club. 

"Pace was excellent, I thought. Start to finish," Cassidy said. "We didn't know how it'd play out. We didn't know if we would have to shorten it. Our intention was to go two 30 minute halves or two periods. ... We're hoping to forward to keep the pace up. I thought they did a great job. I like the activation of our D. Thought they're up the ice a lot, trying to be part of the offense. I thought our O-zone play with the D, the o-zone blue line was good, crisp. We finished some plays around the net. Slot coverage, we will look at because obviously we video this and take a look at. I thought there was a few breakdowns there so we'll we'll address that.

"But overall I thought it was good energy, good compete. We didn't expect guys to be running each other. But puck battles were good. So I liked it. I thought there was some good saves, some good plays. Wasn't sloppy, didn't break down. Not a lot of unforced errors. I think guys were trying to do what they were supposed to out there. Shift length was good. So I thought for the first scrimmage after a long time off, I thought, like I said  —it was real good intensity and pace and that's the first thing we're looking for."

Vaakanainen stands out

Based on what we've seen so far in camp, it would appear as though Jeremy Lauzon is the odds-on favorite to open the year next to Charlie McAvoy on Boston's top D pair, while Jakub Zboril could be in the running of shoring up a starting role on the third pair alongside a veteran like Kevan Miller. 

But don't forget about Urho Vaakanainen.

Once regarded as Boston's top prospect after getting selected 18th overall by the B's during the 2017 NHL Draft, Vaakanainen has seen his progress stagnate a bit over the last few seasons while down with Providence, with Jack Studnicka leapfrogging him for the title of Boston's top prospect after making the jump up from the OHL ranks. But even if injuries and/or growing pains in the AHL have maybe kept Vaakanainen on the outside looking in at a regular role up at the NHL level so far in his young career, the 22-year-old defenseman was poised with the puck on Thursday — connecting on some tape-to-tape first passes out of the D-zone while also activating off the offensive blue line in order to extend some shifts.

For as much as Vaakanainen had previously drawn the ire of Cassidy for his lax practice habits, such wasn't the case on Thursday. It remains to be seen if the Finnish blueliner can beat out a guy like Zboril and earn a starting gig out of camp, but Vaakanainen clearly made a great impression with his play in this scrimmage. We'll see if he can build on that during Friday's scheduled scrimmage.

"I thought Vaakanainen was excellent," Cassidy said. "Probably the better of the younger defensemen today in this particular game."

Marchand held out

Despite skating in Boston's previous three on-ice sessions at Warrior, Brad Marchand did not skate during Thursday's scrimmage, with the winger still working his way back from offseason sports hernia surgery.

No need to raise the alarm, though — as Marchand said his absence was more about managing his return to game action, rather than a setback. Boston's top left winger still expects to be ready to play once Boston opens the regular season on Thursday, Jan. 14.

"We're going to scrimmage again tomorrow, I believe. ... I just started skating with the guys on on Monday and only half a practice and then a full one yesterday, so it was more just to not do too much too early," Marchand said of his absence. "The last thing I want to do is take a step back and I'm right there to be in good to go. So it wasn't necessary to play two scrimmages in two days. So that was more what it was. Just to hang out and relax and recover and make sure that we continue to trend up and not take a step back.

The kids are alright

Vaakanainen might have drawn the most praise from Cassidy on Thursday, but a number of other youngsters made their mark during the intrasquad bout. Lynnfield's own Matt Filipe, who signed an entry-level contract with Boston in August after a strong collegiate career at Northeastern, buried a breakaway goal past Rask in the first half of the scrimmage. A pair of other college undrafted free agents in Nick Wolff and Jack Ahcan will both likely need some seasoning down in the AHL level before seriously pushing for NHL reps, but they may not be especially far off.

Wolff's true value might be realized when the gloves come off in an actual game setting and he can line up a few opposing skaters with some heavy checks, but the 6-foot-5 skater has been solid so far in camp. Despite fighting through some puck-handing slip-ups in the first few days of practice, Wolff did a good job of reading plays during Thursday's skate, keeping a couple of skittering pucks in the offensive zone and recovering a few pucks during some scrums along the board. A lot of talk about Ahcan's game will initially focus on his smaller frame (5-foot-8), but the St. Cloud State product is fearless out there on the ice and not afraid to scrap down low while on in the midst of some taxing D-zone shifts.

A bit of quieter showing from Jack Studnicka while skating to Bergeron's right, while Zboril improved as the scrimmage went on. The Czech defense was pretty smooth through the neutral zone, but was passive at times while operating on the offensive blue line. On a couple of players, a forward pressured high on Zboril at the point, prompting the young defenseman to make a hasty pass that occasionally was off-target.

"Filipe can really get around the ice, obviously scored a nice goal — but he's got good pace to his game here once he gets going. ... Zboril was clean. Going through them — Jack, I didn't notice as much as I typically do with Bergy and Bjork. But Joe (Sacco) told me he liked some of the things he did over there," Cassidy said. ''I was looking at our team a little more. Ahcan I thought was competitive for a smaller guy. Wolff handled the puck well, better than he did in practice. He was much cleaner."

As for the rest of the D corps?

"For the guys coming back, Kevan Miller hadn't played in a long time. Looked good. Was around the puck, skating," Cassidy said. "Johnny Moore had lots of legs. He was jumping up in the play. I thought that Carlo and Grizz were a good pair — clean and being part of the offense."

Coyle/Krejci Lines meshing

Both the Krejci and Coyle lines haven't deviated all that much since camp has opened, with Krejci centering Ondrej Kase and Jake DeBrusk, while Coyle has logged reps with Nick Ritchie and Craig Smith. That early commitment seems to be paying off, as both lines were solid on Thursday — with both DeBrusk and Ritchie burying goals past Vladar off of backhand shots.

Ritchie's goal was generated off some strong board play by Smith, who is clearly far more than just a shot-first sniper. The veteran winger has some solid wheels, and is more than willing to jump in on the forecheck and scrap for some pucks. Smith should open up plenty of ice for his teammates — especially with that shot in his arsenal  — which should bode well for a puck-possession pivot like Coyle and a big body like Ritchie who should plant himself around the low slot for a bevy of Grade-A looks.

As was the case up in the Toronto bubble, Kase generated a number of great chances for his line on Thursday — albeit with zero of those chances finding the back of the net, with Vladar denying the winger at one point with a pad save down low. Hopefully he solves his snake-bitten ways by next week, as the 25-year-old winger will be key in terms of giving that second line some 5v5 scoring punch.

"Obviously Coyle's line scored some goals," Cassidy said. "Complementing each other very well. Nick Ritchie going to the net, finishing plays. The Krejci line, I thought Kase and DeBrusk had lots of looks. So maybe they'll find their offensive game. I thought even Wags and Kuraly made some plays offensively. So I thought it was a good day for that — our puck play. Attack, scored some goals. We got some looks at the net. So was that a product of them just excelling? Or are we breaking down defensively. So those are things will look a little closer."

Bjork/Clifton bring energy 

A regular starting role in this Bruins' lineup is far from a guarantee for both Anders Bjork and Connor Clifton. Given the glut of forwards in the middle-six and bodies on the blue line, the next few days will be crucial for both Bjork and Clifton to skate their claim on this club.

For as much as Bjork earned most of his reps last season on Coyle's line, that spot is not guarantee in 2021, with Cassidy primarily rolling with that Ritchie-Coyle-Smith trio out of the gate. Rather, Bjork has earned quite a few reps on the fourth line, where his speed could prove to be an intriguing fit on a north-south grouping alongside Sean Kuraly and Chris Wagner. 

But on Thursday, Bjork was pressed into top-line duty with Marchand not participating, and made somewhat of a compelling argument as to why he shouldn't be penciled in as a fourth liner / spare forward come Jan. 14. The Notre Dame product was active on Bergeron's line, racing to loose pucks on the forecheck and snapping off a couple of pucks from Grade-A ice. While one of Bjork's flaws has been a lack of tangible production and struggles with getting inside, he wasn't afraid to mix it up in and around the crease on Thursday — getting tangled up with both Clifton and John Moore during drives to the net.

Clifton, who could be battling Kevan Miller for a third-pairing spot, played a typical "Cliffy Hockey" game, at one point breaking up a breakaway bid from Trent Frederic. As expected, he didn't steamroll over any of his teammates in a scrimmage, but he did bring plenty of energy alongside Moore.

Vladar, Swayman face plenty of shots

With Boston's defensemen activating early and often — and both the Coyle and Krejci lines wrecking havoc in the offensive zone — it ended up being a busy afternoon for both Vladar (Team White) and Swayman (Team Black), with both young netminders turning aside a number of quality chances throughout the scrimmage. Vladar's pad save on Kase certainly stands out, but Cassidy believes both netminders more than held their own in their first real test of camp.

Even though Cassidy was quick to note that he's not the goalie guru of this staff, there's a lot to like about what Vladar and Swayman have to offer to this organization in the coming years.

"I will be perfectly honest, I do not watch the goalies a lot unless I noticed pucks going by them every shot, which I didn't," Cassidy said. "In today's scrimmage, I think Swayman had a little more work. I thought it was excellent. He made some high-end saves. So I think we got two really good young goaltenders coming. But it's one day. ... Dan's got a great resume from Providence last year. We didn't get to see him an NHL game except for mop-up duty against Tampa. So we'll certainly never judge him on that. That was a tough night for all of us. So you get thrown into a tough spot. So we're looking at what he did in Providence. ...  As for Swayman, goaltender of the year in college hockey, he's coming in here with a lot of confidence because of that, but he'll just need some some pro reps and we'll see where it goes from there. So far, so good. Both good working,  hardworking guys, seem like real good guys. Just want to get better."

Here were the lines from Thursday’s scrimmage: