With the Bruins’ season opener less than a week away (!), let’s take a stab at predicting Boston’s lineup on Jan. 14, based on what we’ve seen so far during training camp.
Brad Marchand - Patrice Bergeron - Jack Studnicka
Well, there was going to be no doubt about the man in the middle, but it seemed like a given earlier this offseason that the Bruins were going to open the 2021 campaign without either Brad Marchand or David Pastrnak. However, Marchand (sports hernia surgery) seems to be in line to get the green light ahead of Jan. 14, with the winger regularly skating over the past week — and throwing his weight around in a contact-heavy scrimmage on Friday. There might be a bit of rust that Marchand will still need to shake off in the coming weeks, but his hands haven't taken a hit despite some extended time on the shelf — and the forward expects the offseason procedure to do wonders after playing at "80 percent" for most of the past two years. Look out, NHL.
We'll have a bit of a deeper dive on Studnicka in the coming days, but the 21-year-old forward seems like a natural fit to serve as Pastrnak's temporary replacement. While opening your first full NHL season on a top line brings added pressure, slotting him next to the likes of Bergeron and Marchand seems to be a fitting way for the highly-touted prospect to try to build some momentum in the early going, as quality chances in Grade-A ice seem to be a given with both 37 & 63 feeding him opportunities.
If Studnicka hits the ice running this season, it's a good problem to have for Boston, as Pastrnak's eventual return (perhaps early February) could allow Studnicka to slot down further into forward trios in need of a scoring spark, or could open the door for the often-discussed breakup of the Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak line.
Jake DeBrusk - David Krejci - Ondrej Kase
Plenty can change over the course of a season, but it seems as though Bruce Cassidy is committed to seeing just how this top-six unit fares for an extended stretch before any potential tinkering. Krejci certainly won't object, considering the veteran winger has often had a carousel of wingers cycling to his right over the previous couple of seasons (Krejci skated with 15 different line combinations with at least 15 minutes of 5v5 ice time in 2018-19, with that total dropping to just 12 different forward trios in 2019-20).
"We're going to try to sort of push away what happened last year, and focus on the positives of when they played well together," Cassidy said of the second line. " They will have a consistent right wing as well. We're hoping that Ondrej Kase fits in there on a permanent basis now. I've been known to shuffle my lines. I'm sure that will happen from time to time. ... We're hoping that Kase is that guy. We're seeing some good scrimmages out of them now. Some chemistry, fresh start, so to speak, we like what we've seen so far. ... So we see a much more solidified top six and Jake is part of that, but he just has to do his part, go out, give us a solid, 15-18 minutes every night, be consistent. And I think that he's capable of that — should be able to give us that and that's, again, the expectation."
DeBrusk taking another step in his young career should be the expectation in 2021, but the top X-factor among B's forwards might be Kase, who remains an analytics darling but will need to start burying the numerous chances he seems to generate to validate his value to this club. A full camp (as short as it's been) should do wonders for the 25-year-old forward after last season's hectic finish.
Nick Ritchie - Charlie Coyle - Craig Smith
Much like the Krejci line, Cassidy hasn't shuffled up this third line all that much during camp, with Smith regularly standing out during his extended shifts alongside Coyle. Smith's shot should regularly test opposing defenses with the extended O-zone shifts that Coyle regularly generates, while the former Predators wing has also impressed in terms of his board work and overall skating ability. Smith's O-zone skills should open up plenty of ice for the rest of his linemates, which is good news for Ritchie, who, despite a rather disastrous showing up in the Toronto bubble, has been solid and skating well in camp.
If Ritchie can hang around Grade-A for tips/rebounds and inject some physicality into the lineup (without costing his club via penalties), Boston should be happy with the power forward. This grouping will get the start to open the year, although Boston could opt to add a bit more skill to the mix if a player like Ritchie isn't gaining traction in a role next to Coyle.
Anders Bjork - Sean Kuraly - Chris Wagner
The fourth line will be a fascinating case study to examine all year, as Boston's checking line is in desperate need of a rebound when it comes to holding its own against top-six opposition during taxing D-zone shifts — spelling Bergeron and Co. from those draining minutes spent in their own end.
For now, it appears as though Bjork is the early favorite on that left side next to a few regulars in Sean Kuraly and Chris Wagner. For as much as Bjork's offensive ceiling might project him to be penciled in a bit higher in the lineup, the Notre Dame product's straight-line speed could be utilized in a simplified, checking role — especially if deployed as the F1 on the forecheck.
It remains to be seen if Bjork's efforts to add some muscle to his frame will allow him to hold up in a much more physically challenging role to start the year, but his inclusion does make for a pretty unique grouping alongside Kuraly and Wagner. I also wouldn't be surprised if Trent Frederic swaps in and out with Bjork depending on the matchup, as Boston might value the thump that Frederic provides when going up against heavier competition such as the Capitals.
FIRST D PAIR
Jeremy Lauzon — Charlie McAvoy
Let's be frank, you could slot a number of potential skaters alongside McAvoy on this top Bruins D pair — and you're probably still going to have a good grouping, because McAvoy is that good. McAvoy is primed to take another big step forward this season, but just how much freedom he'll have in terms of jumping into the play and generating more 5v5 offense might hinge on how his partner fares in terms of handling the heavy minutes and daunting defensive assignments along the way.
While Lauzon has had his fair share of ups and downs so far during camp, it appears as though he's the favorite to open the season on that top pairing, with Boston hoping that the 23-year-old blueline's simple, hard-nosed style of play will translate well next to McAvoy.
"Obviously, I'm a big body that plays hard, win some puck battles," Lauzon said. "I think me and Charlie could be a really good pair together, we're both guys that compete a lot and can log minutes against big lines. And that's my goal. I want to make Charlie better. And I'm gonna focus on that. And I think it's a big part of it for me. And I think I'm ready for it. And I'm just going to jump into it and make a good impression."
In total, McAvoy and Lauzon have only logged a whopping 11:33 of 5v5 ice time together since Lauzon made the jump up to the NHL ranks, so this is far from a proven duo. However, if Lauzon replicates some of the shutdown metrics he generated from January - March 2020 (he ranked second among B’s blueliners with an expected goals against per 60 minutes rate of 1.80), this top pairing could be fully capable of logging heavy minutes. Still, other defensemen like John Moore or Urho Vaakanainen are also waiting in the wings.
Matt Grzelcyk — Brandon Carlo
Both Grzelcyk and Carlo have stood out throughout camp, with Grzelcyk strong in his usual spots on the breakout/transition game, while Carlo has been solid as ever patrolling Grade-A ice in front of Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak. For as much as a Grzelcyk-Carlo pairing will draw comparisons to Carlo's previous partnership with Torey Krug, this new duo might be able to handle even more challenging minutes in the D-zone.
And even though a Krug-Carlo pairing oftentimes opened most shifts down in the offensive zone to maximize Krug’s playmaking capabilities (they had a 5v5 offensive zone faceoff percentage of 64.42% over the past three seasons), that hasn’t been the case with a Grzelcyk-Carlo grouping — with just 40.91% of their faceoffs coming in the offensive zone during that same stretch. Among the seven different Bruins defensive pairings that have logged at least 300 minutes of 5v5 ice time since 2017, the Grzelcyk-Carlo’s 40.91% O-zone faceoff percentage stands as the lowest among all duos, with more favorable starts even granted to a Chara-McAvoy pair over the last three years (46.74%).
Perhaps the most encouraging aspect for Boston, beyond the fact that Grzelcyk-Carlo can be deployed in more defensive-minded spots, is that Boston has managed to stay afloat despite those grueling shifts spent in its own zone — with the Bruins actually holding a 52.40% shot share and boasting a 12-9 edge in 5v5 goals scored during Grzelcyk and Carlo’s time together on the blue line.
While the rest of Boston's D corps has its fair share of question marks, don't fret too much about this duo.
THIRD D PAIR
Jakub Zboril – Kevan Miller
Miller has been one of the top surprises out of camp, no question. Given the amount of time he's been on the shelf, coupled with the severity of his injuries, it was only fair to question just what the veteran was going to be able to bring this club in 2021. But so far, so good — as Miller has shaken off the rust as time has gone on in camp and has been noticeable in plenty of battle drills and scrimmages. Miller has been sound in terms of closing in on opposing skaters, and his strength and snarl certainly haven't diminished over the last two years. It remains to be seen if he can hold up during a compressed 2021 schedule, but so far, Miller seems locked in for that third pairing.
Miller's partner isn't quite set in stone, but given the number of reps Zboril has earned alongside him, it seems as though Boston is going to give the 23-year-old defenseman every opportunity to prove his worth up in the NHL ranks before turning to another option. Ultimately, if Zboril can keep things simple — make a sound first pass, test defenses with heavy point shots and snuff out scoring chances down low — the rookie can be a regular in this lineup.
"(Jakub) is a great player, sees the ice really well," Miller said of Zboril. "He skates really well, he makes good plays. I think this is the second or third camp in a row where I've been partnered up with him to start and I think he's made leaps and bounds since the first time he got here to where he is now. And he's competing and he's ready to go for practice. He's detail oriented. And I think that's something that when he first got here is a little bit different and now he's learned. And he's done a great job at maturing and kind of growing with the game. So I've really enjoyed playing with him."
I mean, no surprises here. Rask is still the go-to option between the pipes, while having a strong backup option like Halak available will be a major coup for Boston in this compressed schedule.
Other Practice Notes:
Vaakanainen still in the mix
While Sunday's Group A practice featured a majority of Boston's (likely) NHL roster, Cassidy added that a few skaters in Group B (primarily featuring taxi-squad candidates and likely Providence regulars) could still be in the mix in terms of landing a spot up with the big club ahead of Thursday's season opener, with the B's bench boss signaling that Urho Vaakanainen could still push for a role, especially with a strong showing during Monday's scheduled scrimmage at Warrior Ice Arena.
"We did want to get down to more of what our group would look like — work with four lines, eight D and we sprinkled a couple extra forwards in, because that's typically what our roster looks like," Cassidy said of pushing most starters to the Group A squad. "So yes, but I think Vaakanainen should be in that conversation with the way he's played. But I didn't want to practice with nine D, so he was the odd man out. Other guys have a little more seniority."
Marchand exits practice early
For as much as Marchand and the Bruins still expect the left winger to be cleared for Thursday's season opener, the star forward did exit Sunday's practice after just one battle drill — with Cassidy noting afterward that the 32-year-old forward could be back on the ice for Monday's scrimmage.
"He went and got treatment," Cassidy said. "I saw him after. He will be, we're planning on a scrimmage tomorrow. He'll be ... a morning-time decision on how he feels. So obviously, not serious. But I mean, if he misses a day when he feels he should be out there then obviously it's something we'll keep an eye on."
Elsewhere, Cassidy shared the obvious in that Rask will be the expected starter for Thursday's season opener, while Halak is expected to earn at least one start on the club's three-game road trip (Sat @ NJD, Mon @ NYI).