The dog days are finally here.
On Wednesday, the Bruins will launch the 2013-14 campaign. The day will begin with fitness testing at TD Garden. It is the first stage of the season-opening segment that no coach — especially one with as few as two roster openings — is prompt to embrace.
The Bruins are excited. Just three months ago, they were two wins away from claiming their second Stanley Cup in three years. In July, they reloaded with Jarome Iginla and Loui Eriksson. Later in the month, big-money men Tuukka Rask (eight years, $56 million) and Patrice Bergeron (eight years, $52 million) scored the offseason extensions they deserved.
So let’s just jump ahead to the good stuff, shall we?
No NHLer will skate Wednesday. During labor talks, the players negotiated for camp’s first day to be dedicated to off-ice activities: physicals, fitness testing, photographs, and public relations.
On Thursday at the Garden, the Bruins will start the cumbersome two-group sessions. Group A will hit the ice at 10 a.m. Group B will go through the same routine at 12:15 p.m. They will repeat this cycle four more times before 20 players leave for Montreal for Monday’s first preseason game against the Canadiens.
The Bruins need no such throat-clearing to start the season.
Camp’s opening stretch is a necessary evil. This is a fun time for management and the scouting staff. The youngsters they scouted over years, in between bad road meals and punishing travel schedules, skate next to the veterans. The picks the general managers once considered currency become flesh-and-blood assets. The bosses set the baselines for their prospects and wannabes to determine how much work they require to make the varsity.
The coaches have no choice but to suck it up.
Claude Julien’s first two lines are set. Iginla will replace Nathan Horton as the No. 1 right wing alongside Milan Lucic and David Krejci. Eriksson will slot into Tyler Seguin’s spot riding shotgun with Bergeron and Brad Marchand.
Daniel Paille deserves a season-opening look on the third line with Chris Kelly. If Gregory Campbell is fit to go, the gritty forward will center the fourth line with Shawn Thornton on his right side.
The seven defensemen will be Zdeno Chara, Dennis Seidenberg, Johnny Boychuk, Dougie Hamilton, Adam McQuaid, Torey Krug, and Matt Bartkowski. Assuming good health, Rask should blow past 49 appearances in goal, his career high set in 2009-10.
There are few remaining roster-assembly questions for the braintrust to answer. Up front, they must determine how to fill their bottom-six vacancies.
Of the bunch, Carl Soderberg has the highest ceiling. The skilled Swedish forward dressed for six regular-season matches last season and Games 5 and 6 of the Final against Chicago. Soderberg’s assets — size, hockey sense, vision, hands — could put him on track for third-line duty. Soderberg’s offensive awareness could also make him a right-side half-wall candidate on the power play. But the 27-year-old’s game does not suit him for the fourth line.
Others with the jam-and-skill versatility to play on both bottom-two lines include Jordan Caron, Reilly Smith, Matt Fraser, and Craig Cunningham. This will be Caron’s fourth season in the organization. His size, skill, and smarts should make him a good fit. But the Bruins believed that before. Caron’s absence of snarl has dumped him in Providence when his physical qualities should have dictated otherwise.
Smith, acquired in the Seguin trade, broke through last year. Former coach Glen Gulutzan tapped the first-year pro for 37 games. Smith had three goals and six assists while averaging 10 minutes, 55 seconds of ice time per game. The left-shot forward also averaged 1:01 of power-play time per game, an indication of some offensive touch.
On defense, both Krug and Bartkowski will break camp with the big club. Assuming the two defensemen are close, opponents could determine who plays and who sits. If a muscle-bound team like Toronto is in town, Bartkowski might get the nod. If the Bruins need more offensive pop, Krug could dress over Bartkowski.
In goal, the backup job is Chad Johnson’s to lose. All the Bruins need from Johnson is 15-start dependability and efficiency at opening the bench door (an overlooked but important skill).
Camp’s leading objective is to prime the pump for Oct. 3’s season opener against Tampa Bay. As soon as possible, the Bruins need to cut down to about 30 players. That’s enough to allow guys to compete for jobs. But the big boys require reps in practices and games. When the Lightning arrive in 22 days, the Bruins must be at full speed.
Consider the start of 2011-12. The Bruins were reeling from a summer of fatigue, excessive lubrication, or a cocktail of the two. They bungled their way to a 3-7-0 start. Only a 10-win sprint into Thanksgiving yanked them out of a ditch nearly too deep for extraction.
In 2011, the Bruins played until June 15. This year, Game 6 of the Final took place on June 24. Another short summer threatens to flatten the Bruins’ tires. General manager Peter Chiarelli has targeted November as his danger month.
The Bruins can’t afford a bad start. Under realignment, only the top three finishers in each division are guaranteed playoff entry.
The final two spots in each conference go to the remaining teams with the most points, regardless of division. The Bruins’ toughest division competitors will be Detroit, Ottawa, Toronto, and Montreal.
The first 10 days of camp will be tedious. The opening games against Montreal (Monday) and Washington (Tuesday) will include high-uniform numbers and names familiar only to diehard puckheads.
The real work will be at the end of September. As silly and grinding as a swing to Saskatoon and Winnipeg for games against the Jets may be, the trip will also serve as a team-building opportunity. Upon their return to Boston, the Bruins will make their last cuts and run through touch-up work ahead of the regular season.
That time can’t come soon enough.