There were few surprises as the Bruins hit the TD Garden ice Sunday for their first official post-lockout practice. Three of the four lines have played together before. Two of the three defense pairings were the same from previous seasons.
The only major difference from last season is in goal, where Tuukka Rask will replace Tim Thomas as the No. 1 puck-stopper.
Besides the goaltending change, it will be business as usual. Given a 48-game dash to the playoffs, familiarity is a significant asset.
“You’re going to see pretty much what you’ve seen before,” said general manager Peter Chiarelli. “Everyone’s healthy. Everyone’s excited. We’ve got changes in goal. You’re going to see a good team. I’ve talked about condensing expectations, which magnifies them, I guess. You’re going to see a team that’s highly, highly motivated.”
Patrice Bergeron centered Brad Marchand and Tyler Seguin. David Krejci was between Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton. The fourth line of Daniel Paille, Gregory Campbell, and Shawn Thornton was the same.
On defense, Zdeno Chara was paired with Johnny Boychuk, one of his regular partners. Andrew Ference skated with Adam McQuaid.
The only new faces in the projected 18-man skating unit were Chris Bourque and Dougie Hamilton. Bourque practiced alongside regular third-liners Chris Kelly and Rich Peverley. Hamilton was paired with veteran Dennis Seidenberg.
For coach Claude Julien, there will be few surprises as he prepares his team for the compressed schedule. Julien knows the majority of this group practically better than his own family.
“You hope that those years with the same team and the years being here will help,” said Julien, entering his sixth season behind the Bruins’ bench. “It goes back to what I was talking about earlier about guys who haven’t played much vs. guys who have played. There might be some guys that are key players who may be a little slow off the mark because of the fact they didn’t play. Being proactive as a coach, maybe they get a little less ice time. It’s not punishment. But it’s because they’re not ready to have more ice time. That’s by knowing your players and knowing what they can do and give you.”
In previous camps, the Bruins, like every other team, would have had enough bodies to dress two squads. Julien and his assistants practiced more patience to adjust to pace and systems.
This camp is different. There are no preseason games, save for an intrasquad scrimmage Tuesday night at the Garden. Only five practices stand between the Bruins and the New York Rangers, their season-opening opponents on Saturday.
On Sunday, the Bruins sprinted through an hourlong practice. Julien was quick to bark at his players when they failed to execute a drill correctly.
“We can’t ease into this,” Julien said. “We’ve got to get on top of our game as soon as possible. You probably heard me chirping a little bit more about certain things. This is not about, ‘Hey, this is the first day, we’ll take it easy.’ We’ve got to get to work here. There’s no time to waste.”
The challenge Julien faces is striking a balance between stability and accountability. Traditionally, Julien has been conservative with lineup changes. But if faced with a losing streak, Julien will rework the lineup he debuted in Sunday’s practice.
“You’ve got to be a little bit more proactive,” Julien said. “When you’ve got 82 games, sometimes you’ll tell yourself, ‘I’ll give these guys a little more time here. They’ll get through it and they’ll be better.’ It might be a little different with this schedule. We may not have time to let them go through a slump or whatever you want to call it. At the same time, it’ll probably be up to me to be more proactive and find solutions to push those buttons, hopefully to our advantage.”
The player facing the biggest adjustment is Hamilton. Earlier this month, he was feeling the pain of Canada’s fourth-place finish at the World Junior Championship. During the tournament, which features the world’s top teenagers, Hamilton didn’t play his best. Scouts saw a 19-year-old pressing to create offensive chances.
Last Sunday, Hamilton and his Team Canada teammates were traveling back from Ufa, Russia. They were at London’s Heathrow Airport. Their transatlantic flight had been scrubbed. They were due for a 12-hour layover. Hamilton’s frustration dissolved when news came of the lockout’s conclusion.
“Little bad news, then a little good news after that,” Hamilton said.
In the front office, Chiarelli and his brain trust are already looking ahead. The 2013-14 cap has been set at $64.3 million. As the Bruins seek cap compliance, there likely will be future change.
Horton, Ference, and backup goalie Anton Khudobin will become unrestricted free agents. The Bruins must re-sign Rask (restricted after this season). They must even look beyond 2014, the last year under contract for Bergeron and Seidenberg.
Chiarelli noted the two compliance buyouts over the next two years that he will have as tools. The current collective bargaining agreement also allows teams to retain cash in trades.
“Tons of combinations have been going through my head as to how to continue to ice this competitive a team to challenge for the Cup. I’m still in that stage,” Chiarelli said. “We’ve got some key signings, whether they’re expiring contracts or going into their final years, like Bergy, Horton, and Ference, guys like that, the goalies. We’ve got some decisions to make.”
The roster has been stable even dating to the Bruins’ Stanley Cup-winning season. Of the 20 players expected to be in uniform against the Rangers, 18 were at Rogers Arena to lift the Cup on June 15, 2011. On Saturday, the Bruins will take their first step toward using that stability to their advantage.