Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy likes to tinker with his lineup, but not under these terms.
The comings and goings of last week are expected to continue for the Bruins, who have been missing several key players daily at practices. It has been hard to Cassidy to decide who’s playing with David Krejci on the second line, where newcomers Ondrej Kase and Nick Ritchie fit in, or which kids could make a push for playing time.
“None yet, really, to be honest with you,” he said Monday, when asked what questions have been answered in the first week of camp. “Clearly there’s some guys that when they get back to our team, they’re going to go in the lineup.”
Here are five players who have made an upward move in the first week:
Brandon Carlo, D: Charlie McAvoy’s game is more complete, but Carlo has been the best defenseman so far. He erases plays with his size (6 feet 5 inches, 224, up 5 pounds from March), stick and mobility. He seems to have cut most of the jitters from his game, showing a more looming presence in the D zone and increased puck control and rush ability. He is becoming a foundational piece.
Anders Bjork, RW: Scratched before the Bruins paused in March, he gained strength and confidence over the break and started hot. Didn’t stand out as much as the week went on, since other players caught up, but maintained his level of play. Expected to vie for the third-line right wing spot, but has been playing first line all camp because of David Pastrnak’s absence. Can he spark the third line?
Matt Grzelcyk, D: His best attributes — fast hands, tight turns — have shown up early in camp. No longer a kid (26), the Bruins are pleased that he has been the rock of the third pair. “He’s become one of those guys you don’t have to worry a lot about,” said Cassidy, who made him a one-game healthy scratch in January. “He’s always well-prepared. It’s just little things here and there. Kudos to him for being a great pro.” Grzelcyk made one of the highlight plays of Monday’s scrimmage, when he gave Ritchie a doorstep tap-in with a Torey Krug-like cross-seam pass through traffic.
Jake DeBrusk, LW: His young legs will be needed in Toronto. In shape and moving well. Coaches have had to push him, taking him off first PP unit and dropping him to third line before the pause. Enjoying life again with Krejci, though they have had a rotating cast of RWs. Like Grzelcyk and Bjork, strong showing in the playoffs will help his restricted free agent case. “His upside is tremendous,” Cassidy said. “Pleased with his effort so far.”
Sean Kuraly, RW: Slots in best as a fourth-line, left-shot center, and has played a bit of left wing. The Bruins are light on right wings, and believe Kuraly’s wheels and tenacity could be a fit on the third line with Charlie Coyle and Ritchie. Game action will dictate if he can get comfortable handling hot passes on his backhand, playing his opposite wing. He seems willing to create more offense as a third-liner, though his upside, as it were, is limited.
And five who need to step up:
Ondrej Kase, RW: He and Krejci haven’t spent a second together this month. Has the kind of creativity and quickness the slippery Krejci could maximize. It remains a theory.
Nick Ritchie, LW: Still learning what to do in the Bruins system, which makes his lack of foot speed stick out. Can be effective as a big body in front, but the Bruins don’t need another David Backes. Coyle has broad shoulders, but he needs some help.
Karson Kuhlman, RW: One of the quickest Bruins. Plenty of zip on his shot. No fear on the forecheck. But those wanting to declare Kuhlman a bona fide second-line right wing are left wanting. Too many plays die on his stick.
Dan Vladar, G: Bad spot for a goalie, seeing loads of rubber after a four-month layoff. It is particularly tough for a 22-year-old used to seeing AHL shooters. Neither Vladar nor Max Lagace looked NHL-caliber in the first week. The third-string job will be wide-open next season.
John Moore, D: The veteran has the respect of his teammates and coaching staff. But may not spend the end of his contract, which pays him $2.75 million a year through 2023, on this roster. Jeremy Lauzon has a lock on the third-pair right-side spot, and Connor Clifton is cheaper ($1m) and a natural righty. Moore is working hard. “He never pouts,” Cassidy said. “Terrific teammate, terrific person.”
DeBrusk said he has checked in on his pal, Pastrnak.
“He seems to be in good spirits,” he said. “Obviously, it’s not the ideal situation. But from when I’ve talked to him, he’s still Pasta. He’s still doing his thing. I’m not worried about him at all.”
But the Bruins’ leading scorer was still missing, as was Kase, Chris Wagner, and Anton Blidh.
Addition to the ‘unfits’
Add McAvoy to the ranks of the “unfit to participate.”
McAvoy had been present since camp opened last Monday. Wagner and Blidh have missed a day each. Pastrnak and Kase have been available to practice one day each.
“There’s different reasons,” Cassidy said. “The obvious one is injury. When it comes to the COVID aspect of it, you’re seeing tests that don’t come back on time, tests that are inconclusive. We’re being cautious. A lot of that has factored into what’s happened recently.”
With McAvoy out, Jakub Zboril and Urho Vaakanainen split reps as Zdeno Chara’s partner. Zach Senyshyn took Wagner’s place at fourth-line right wing. None of those youngsters is a threat to crack the lineup.
Good news: six of the nine regulars who were missing during Saturday’s practice were back Monday. Forwards Krejci, Kuraly, Coyle, and Ritchie, defenseman Krug, and goalie Tuukka Rask (hand injury) returned to action.
Still, they look like a different team, particularly at the offensive end, without Pastrnak.
“Is it ideal? No,” said his linemate, Patrice Bergeron. “That being said, me, Pasta and [Brad Marchand] have been playing together for a while now. Every time we’re put back on a line together, we’re finding the chemistry pretty quickly. It seems pretty seamless every time.
The NHL flipped a pair of Eastern Conference round-robin games. The Bruins will now play the Capitals on Sunday, Aug. 9, and the Lighting-Flyers game was moved to Saturday, Aug. 8 … Because of their lineup holes, the Bruins still haven’t done special-teams work. That may come this week, depending on who’s available, and will certainly be a part of Toronto practices before the July 30 scrimmage against Columbus … Sunday, unless practices are light this week, will be Black and Gold getaway day, with no practice.