Bruins training camp, ostensibly a speed-dating exercise in the NHL’s compressed 2021 season, moved up-tempo Thursday morning, with the first of critical back-to-back scrimmage days at the club’s Brighton practice facility.
The start of the new season is next Thursday night in New Jersey, and with no exhibition games being played as tuneups anywhere in the NHL, it will be the grind under game conditions that goes a long way in determining coach Bruce Cassidy’s 23-man roster to start the 56-game season.
“We’re trying to get game-ready,” noted Cassidy, prior to puck drop on the first scrimmage, which had his charges divided into two squads and playing in 30-minute periods of running time. “And we’re evaluating a couple of positions.”
Yes, there are jobs, particularly on the back end now that captain Zdeno Chara (Washington) and power-play quarterback Torey Krug (St. Louis) have moved to new environs.
Also, on a temporary basis up front — what could be the better part of the first month of the season — Cassidy has to find a fill-in at No. 1 right wing for top goal scorer David Pastrnak (recovering from hip surgery). Left wing on the No. 4 line also needs filling, after Joakim Nordstrom’s departure to Calgary as a free agent. Newcomer Craig Smith (RW) already may have found a partner in Charlie Coyle on the third line.
“We’ve liked them in practice,” mused Cassidy. “Now, will they be a good duo?”
If the scrimmage lines and defensive pairings reflect the first three days of workouts, Jeremy Lauzon will get first crack at Chara’s vacancy to the left of Charlie McAvoy. If Lauzon is able to keep the pace, after only 41 games of NHL experience to date, he would log an average of 20 minutes or more ice time as McAvoy’s five-on-five running mate.
“I want to focus on playing my game, not get too excited,” said Lauzon. “Play simple. Play hard.”
No one on the Boston roster, or perhaps anywhere in the NHL, can match the “hard” factor of the 6-foot-9-inch Chara. But Lauzon, not shy, has shown he likes to thump, undoubtedly a factor in why Cassidy will give him the initial look-see over there.
Krug paired regularly with Brandon Carlo the last couple of seasons, and it now looks like Matt Grzelcyk will slide into that spot on the No. 2 pairing. But it will be McAvoy, asked to step up his shooting game, who most likely will get first dibs on Krug’s open spot at No. 1 PP point duty.
Grzelcyk, adept at dancing along the blue line, could partner with McAvoy on the power play, but it remains to be seen whether Cassidy will employ one or two back liners on the man-advantage. Krug handled the back line alone, which typically allowed Cassidy to employ four forwards on PP1, among the most effective units in the league.
Up front, it looks like Jack Studnicka will be the first candidate to fill in for Pastrnak on the No. 1 line with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. That’s living good in the neighborhood, isn’t it?
Bergeron, who has a Hall of Fame-caliber résumé, was formally named Chara’s replacement as captain Thursday. Marchand rolled up 357 points the last four seasons, ranking him the No. 5 point producer in the league — behind Connor McDavid, Nikita Kucherov, Leon Draisaitl, and Patrick Kane.
“It’s no secret those two have unbelievable chemistry — the way they see the ice and the ability to play with each other,” said Studnicka, the club’s second-round pick (No. 53) in the 2017 draft. “They like to play at a high pace, always moving their feet, always separating from guys.
“I just want to hop in there, if given the opportunity, and play to my strengths, which is speed and playmaking and just playing at the high tempo they like.”
Smith, signed as a free agent from Nashville, looked like a seamless fit with Coyle in the early workouts. Coyle’s main asset is strong puck possession in the offensive end. Smith has abundant speed and a shoot-first mentality. They’re a logical pairing, and the scrimmages will provide a glimpse of whether they can develop some chemistry.
Anders Bjork, who opened the 2017-18 season on the Bergeron-Marchand line, is possibly the fit to join Sean Kuraly and Chris Wagner on the fourth line. He is fast and has shown flashes of scoring touch, which could make the grind line a bit more of an offensive threat.
The scrimmage squads each suited up nine forwards, six defensemen, and two goalies. After the first 30-minute session, new ice was made and new goalies put on the job.
Among the things Cassidy said he liked after the first scrimmage: puck battles, good saves, clean plays, lack of breakdowns and unforced errors, proper shift lengths.
“I thought for a first scrimmage, after a long time off, there was real good intensity and pace,” said Cassidy. “That’s the first thing we are looking for.”
Running time again on Friday. Speed dating sur glace. The new season awaits, no doubt with plenty of roster tinkering to come. The next two days will be our first look at how the pieces fit.