If you must debate the wisdom of the Bruins letting Noel Acciari, Joakim Nordstrom, and Tim Schaller walk, go ahead. But know that Acciari (three goals in Florida this year) is showing that last year’s 20-goal season might be an aberration. Nordstrom (0-0—0 in 23 games) hasn’t made an impact in Calgary. Schaller is on an AHL deal with Pittsburgh.
Blame the personnel that left or those that remain, but the fact is the Bruins’ fourth line hasn’t been the same for two years.
In 2017-18, coach Bruce Cassidy used Schaller, Sean Kuraly, and Acciari to frustrate most any opposing line. The No. 4 unit was even better in the Stanley Cup Final run the following year; Nordstrom, Kuraly, Acciari, and Chris Wagner finished checks all over the ice, lugged pucks deep into the offensive zone, and wore down scoring lines by grinding and cycling.
This year, they are chasing the play. Kuraly, Wagner, and Anders Bjork have spent time as healthy scratches. Anton Blidh didn’t stick. The fourth line is regularly underwater as it relates to possession, scoring chances, and goals.
“I think our guys are trying to be physical,” Cassidy said before the Bruins defeated the Rangers, 4-0, on Thursday night. “I think Anders has tried to build that into his game. Managing the puck has been a challenge for them, more this year than in the past. The O-zone possession is what’s just not there this year.”
Having a killer fourth line in previous seasons allowed Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci to do less heavy lifting. Bergeron is still called on for key draws, but the Bruins do not want him and Krejci fighting their way out of the defensive zone for 60 minutes.
Sometimes, a coach’s hand is forced.
“They’re older guys,” Cassidy said. “We’re just trying to save some wear and tear. Certainly they can do it. We prefer not to use them in that situation, but if that’s what the situation calls for, then that’s what we’re going to do.”
Senyshyn gets chance
Instead of a buzzsaw that tears through No. 1 lines, Cassidy’s fourth line has been a proving ground for rookies. The promising Trent Frederic was promoted to the third line, in part because Charlie Coyle’s line lacks a left-stick faceoff man. Jack Studnicka, whom the Bruins want to train at center, remained on the No. 4 unit for Thursday’s game.
Next up: Zach Senyshyn.
One of three first-round picks (15th overall) made by Don Sweeney in 2015, the 6-foot-1-inch, 192-pound right winger, working the fourth line with Studnicka and Kuraly, made a decent first impression. He landed three shots and used his considerable speed on the forecheck, logging 11:46.
“He’s got good speed,” Cassidy said, noting the line’s ability to force turnovers and Senyshyn’s confidence. “Made good decisions with the puck, on the attack.”
After he was cut in training camp, the speedy Senyshyn cobbled together a 5-4—9 line in 11 games as an all-situations player with the AHL Bruins. Cassidy reported the 23-year-old was playing a solid two-way game there. His task at the varsity level: take pucks to the net, shoot, bother opponents as the lead forechecker.
“Do what you do best and do what you’ve been doing, which is being assertive,” Cassidy said.
If Senyshyn performs well, Cassidy said, he’ll be a candidate to knock someone out of the top six. That would likely mean Jake DeBrusk, who was back in the lineup after Tuesday’s healthy scratch.
Against the Rangers, Cassidy slotted DeBrusk — who had been without an even-strength goal this season before tallying in the second period — on his natural left wing. Nick Ritchie played the right side of Krejci.
At some point, the message has to get through to DeBrusk — or, based on comments made by Sweeney Wednesday, roster moves could be made.
“I don’t think there’s any gray area in that right now: We need him to play better,” Cassidy said, repeating the oft-cited idea that DeBrusk has to give a better effort “on the forecheck, away from the puck, around the front of the net.”
DeBrusk, who went one pick before Senyshyn (and one after defenseman Jakub Zboril) in 2015, has the requisite skill and speed to score goals by the gallon.
“Hopefully he resets a little, in terms of let’s put the first 22 games behind us, and let’s look at this as maybe a bit of a fresh start,” Cassidy said. “I think players do that a lot, anyway, coming out of injury or if they’ve had a bad stretch, they eventually say, hey, I’m going to get out of my own way and just start over here.”
Rask not available
No. 1 netminder Tuukka Rask, dealing with an undisclosed ailment, was not available to practice or make his scheduled start. Dan Vladar was slotted as the backup to Jaroslav Halak. Rask was working out an apparent back issue in the third period of Sunday’s game against the Devils, and did not travel for Tuesday’s game against the Islanders. The Bruins believed it to be a minor issue, but it has lingered. Barring an injury to Halak, the Bruins wouldn’t call on Vladar or Jeremy Swayman until a Monday-Tuesday back-to-back in Pittsburgh . . . Rangers star Artemi Panarin returned to practice Wednesday after a two-week absence (personal reasons). He did not play Thursday . . . Bruins winger Ondrej Kase, not seen since the second game of the season (Jan. 16), skated on his own Thursday morning. He has not been cleared to rejoin the team . . . Thursday was the first time Zboril, DeBrusk, and Senyshyn suited up for an NHL game together.