Jack Studnicka, who tied for the team lead in preseason scoring (2-2—4), forced the Bruins to make a difficult call in returning him to Providence.
“Your roster on Monday can look different on Saturday,” coach Bruce Cassidy said he told the 22-year-old center. “I anticipate he’ll start down there, hopefully play well in the middle of the ice, and when it’s his turn, hopefully he comes up and never looks back.”
The Bruins believe Studnicka can develop into a creative playmaker in the NHL. To help him get accustomed to the league during the preseason, he was asked to play a north-south game, manage the puck, and make high-percentage plays on his forehand.
“He did all those things,” Cassidy said. “I did not notice as many turnovers or ‘soft’ plays. Usually those are on your backhand, through people. They’re low-percentage. They don’t have as much of a chance, unless you’re [Sidney] Crosby, and there’s not many of him.”
Rather than chasing the play after a giveaway, Studnicka was in good position. He was also more forceful in the offensive zone, as evidenced during one play against the Capitals.
“He had [Taylor] Hall on the left, could have kicked it out, but he kept driving and rang one off the post,” Cassidy said. “Beat the goalie clean, it just went off the post.”
Cassidy and general manager Don Sweeney had another tough discussion with fourth-line right wing Chris Wagner, who was beaten out by the younger, faster, less expensive Karson Kuhlman.
“If I know Chris, he’ll go down and play hard,” Cassidy said. “He’s a good character guy.
“Sometimes you get an opportunity to build your game in a different environment, probably play a little more in different situations, and it can help you. That’s not the plan when you’ve been in the league and already done it. I feel for him. He did pay his dues.”
The NHL season began Tuesday with the Bruins on the sidelines. Cassidy was taking full advantage of a long break between the preseason finale and Saturday’s season opener against the Stars.
Tuesday’s workout in Brighton was heavy on situations. The Bruins’ most skilled players got work in three-on-three simulations, and those entrusted to defend leads practiced the frenzied, end-of-game moments with the net empty.
As risky as it is to pull the goalie, the Bruins were arguably the most successful team at doing so last season. They were one of three teams to score more (five) than they allowed (three); Edmonton (3-2) and St. Louis (11-10) were the others. According to Natural Stat Trick, no team had a better shot share (42-3).
Change has come to that six-on-five unit. The ever-composed David Krejci will no longer be at the top of the zone. Nick Ritchie, formerly a net-front man, is now in Toronto. On Tuesday, Mike Reilly and Hall, respectively, were filling those roles. Cassidy said Charlie Coyle or Nick Foligno could be net-front options.
“Teams know that the ice is bad and there’s a lot of bodies crammed into one zone,” Cassidy said. “You can draw up all the plays you want, it’s tough to get a wide-open guy. Typically, it’s get a play to the net and crash for second chances.”
The Bruins’ method of defending a lead against six attackers, Cassidy said, is to protect the middle and play a box-and-one, penalty-kill style. The center does not chase the puck. Once the shot comes, the Bruins try to win a 50-50 puck battle. Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand could teach master classes in that.
Younger forwards such as Kuhlman and Trent Frederic, to be considered for such duty, will have to increase their battle level.
Trying to stay sharp
Another challenge in the coming weeks: keeping netminders Jeremy Swayman and Linus Ullmark sharp.
The Bruins had six exhibition games, two fewer than the league limit. They are in a stretch of nine days between games. They have three days off before their second game, Oct. 20 at Philadelphia.
Ullmark, whose gaffe with the puck led to a preseason loss to the Rangers, won’t have many early chances to solidify that area of his game.
“When you’re not playing that much, you’re not hearing the communication on the ice, the little subtle details around your net,” Cassidy said. “It’s hard to replicate that in practice.”
Swayman has a 10-game head start in the Bruins system, but both goalies are relatively unproven. As such, there’s no season-long script, as Cassidy and goalie coach Bob Essensa would create for Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak.
“We’re going through the first month, that’s it,” said Cassidy, who has not named a starter for Saturday. “You’ll see somewhat of a split, that’s my guess.”