There is practice. And then there are games.
While the Bruins staff has been doing its best to evaluate players during training camp sessions in Wilmington and at TD Garden, that isn’t quite the same as seeing those players in game action. Up until now, it was more about establishing systems, about drills, as the coaches worked through the opening days on the ice.
But that changes Monday, with the Bruins heading to Montreal for their first preseason game, followed by their second in Baltimore Tuesday against the Capitals. So, now, the judging begins in earnest.
“There’s guys that are great in practice, get them in the game, you don’t see them,” coach Claude Julien said. “And you’ve got guys in practice that they’re painful to watch sometimes — you say, ‘Oh my gosh’ — and then you see them in a game and it’s like, ‘Wow, what a different player.’
“That’s why you’ve got to be careful when you analyze players. I think the games are really going to tell the tale here. I think it’s important that we watch those closely this year because there’s going to be some real big decisions down the road.”
Those decisions include determining the players who will surround Chris Kelly on the third line and the last few defensemen on the roster. Most of the options for those spots are younger, less-experienced players, some of whom will be getting their first taste of games with the Bruins in the next couple of days.
“Any time you get into a preseason game as a rookie — or even a veteran trying to make the squad — it’s exciting because you have to play your best and you have to show why you should stay,” Johnny Boychuk said. “If you have a bad game, you could be going home.”
Boychuk, now established as a Bruins blue liner, remembers what that’s like. He was in that position for, as he put it, “a lot of years.”
“You want to just go out there and make sure you leave an impression on the coaching staff and the organization,” he said. “You have to go out there like it’s your last shift. You have to do anything and everything to make an impression.”
Because, even if some of those players don’t make the team for opening night, the images of those preseason games can be lasting. They can make a difference when another player goes down with injury or performs poorly.
The plan for winger Reilly Smith, for example, consists of “anything I can do to catch a couple eyes and be able to convey what I’m good at, and maybe some things that they don’t think I am good at.”
“They really want to prove that they can do it,” veteran Dennis Seidenberg said of the younger players. “It raises the intensity and it keeps us on our toes. That’s a good thing for everybody.”
But as important as it will be for the younger guys, that doesn’t mean it’s any less important for the more-established players.
“If you’re an older guy, you want to prove that you can play and belong,” Seidenberg said. “If you’re a younger guy, you want to prove that you can play and can make the team. Both sides want to prove things and want to show off what they can do.”
He added, “The young guys are probably really eager to get going. For us it’s important to get our timing back. It’ll be fun to get to start playing again, feeling comfortable, getting your gaps and the timing right.
“Everybody has their different philosophy of getting started, but overall you have to play the system, that’s the most important thing. You have to fit into a team the way they want you to play.”
Backups in forefront
One positional battle that hasn’t been getting much ink is the battle to back up goalie Tuukka Rask.
The top candidates are Chad Johnson, a free agent signee, and Niklas Svedberg, the top goalie in the AHL last season.
“I think when you look at the candidates, we’ve got some good depth,” Julien said. “The competition has probably better depth than what most people think, so I’m comfortable with what I’ve seen and I think they understand that, those guys that are battling for that backup spot understand what’s at stake. They’re certainly trying to be at their best here.”
Julien said it wouldn’t be a problem to have Svedberg on the bench in Boston, rather than trying to get him more playing time in Providence. As he put it, “I think if he’s ready, he’s ready. It’s as simple as that. If we feel he’s ready to be a backup here, we’ll make him a backup here.”
Taking some time
Though Julien had said that the team might make its first cuts before the first preseason game, that won’t happen until at least Wednesday . . . The Bruins expect to finalize the roster for the Montreal game Monday. Julien said the lineup will include more of the Group B players that have been skating together through the first week of training camp. That group includes the top line (Milan Lucic, David Krejci, Jarome Iginla) and last season’s fourth line (Shawn Thornton, Gregory Campbell, Daniel Paille), as well as Zdeno Chara. That does not necessarily mean that any or all of those players will go to Montreal.