A wide-ranging chat this past week with incoming Bruins coach Jim Montgomery confirmed, among other things, that Pavel Zacha and Jake DeBrusk are about to have the most enticing opportunities of their careers.
More to come from that interview in the weeks ahead, but first, let us dig into what Montgomery revealed as his plans for training camp, which begins in about four weeks.
He wants to mix up his forward lines to determine who plays well with others, but when Montgomery first grabs his whistle, he plans to send Zacha (left wing) and DeBrusk (right wing) out for regular twirls with Patrice Bergeron.
“Those are the two in particular, of the guys that we see in the top nine, that we need to take steps,” Montgomery said. “Not only for this year, to alleviate minutes from the guys that play top minutes, but also for the future.”
Not having Brad Marchand, who could miss the first two months because of double hip surgery, is an unenviable way for a coach to start. But Montgomery is encouraged that Zacha can do a capable job filling in as Bergeron’s running mate.
Zacha reached a career high in points last season (36), after setting personal bests in goals (17) and assists (24) in each of the two previous years. Still, he has yet to live up to the potential at both ends of the NHL ice, particularly in the attacking end, which caused the Devils to take a swing on him at No. 6 overall in the 2015 draft. A big season could mean a long-term extension with Boston, and new levels of career security.
DeBrusk’s rocky few years have been well documented, of late including a rescinded trade request and the start of a two-year, $8 million extension. The opportunity for Zacha, traded to Boston from New Jersey for Erik Haula and subsequently signed to a one-year, $3.5 million deal, could be significant.
“I can’t think of a better person to start your first couple days of camp, learning how to be a Bruin, than riding shotgun with Patrice Bergeron,” Montgomery said.
Those two as Bergeron’s wingers will let the returning David Krejci reacclimate to the NHL with Taylor Hall (LW) and David Pastrnak (RW) as his cohorts. Whatever the early production from Zacha and DeBrusk — the latter of whom finished with 25 goals after catching fire in the second half after a promotion to the Marchand-Bergeron line — Hall-Krejci-Pastrnak looks like the Bruins’ early go-to trio.
After Hall’s arrival at the 2021 trade deadline, he put up eight goals and six assists in 16 games. Krejci went for 6-15—21 in that stretch, while Pastrnak had 4-12—16. In the rush-happy early days of the season, they could combine for some pretty scoring chances.
“Hall and Krejci had tremendous success two years ago,” Montgomery said. “Pasta has success with everybody, especially Bergeron and Krejci.
“That’s how it’ll start the first two days. Then I’m going to mix it around, because I want to see different players and see chemistry, who works. We all know that Pasta, Bergy, and Marchy — when he comes back — it works at a high level. One of the top two or three lines in the league. But I would like a two-headed monster, and I think because of Krech coming back, we’re going to have a two-headed monster, as far as offensively.”
Montgomery also hopes that Charlie Coyle will be a leader of a puck-possessing, momentum-shifting third line. Boosted by a surgically repaired knee, Coyle scored the most points (16-28—44) and played in all 82 games for the first time since his career-best 18-38—56 for Minnesota in 2016-17. His most experienced options for wingers include Trent Frederic, Craig Smith, Nick Foligno, and, once Marchand is healthy, Zacha.
“And then our fourth line, which I see Foligno being a leader of, if he’s not on the third line, being an important momentum line,” Montgomery said. “Getting us right back into the other team’s end and gaining momentum for the other lines and wearing teams down so we can change on the fly and throw out whoever Pasta’s playing with to get us a goal.”
Montgomery said everyone will get a fresh start, since he has “no preconceived notions of strengths and weaknesses.” He’s eager to see what Frederic, Jack Studnicka, Fabian Lysell, John Beecher, and other young players can do — “there’s a lot of guys like that,” Montgomery noted — but more importantly for him, he wants to see if Zacha and DeBrusk can grow into core players.
“Is DeBrusk able to handle a lot more minutes now that Marchy’s out for the first month and a half, two months, whatever that looks like injury-wise?” Montgomery said. “These guys have the opportunity to seize minutes and play important, what I call result-oriented, shifts. Which are, pulled goalie, first power play, being the line that goes out after a goal scored, for and against — like, if they develop, become a nucleus player, once we get those other guys back, we really become a deep team. And I think we’re a deep team already.”
The back end, at present, is thinner than the forward group. The absences of Charlie McAvoy and Matt Grzelcyk, both on similar timelines as Marchand after each had shoulder surgery, means Hampus Lindholm will start his first full season as a Bruin — and an eight-year, $52 million contract extension — in a critical role.
“Having watched the video, we’re going to have the luxury when [Charlie] Mac is back to have Mac and Hampus be the top pairing,” Montgomery said. “You basically know 25 minutes of the game, five on five, is taken care of.
“So Hampus is going to have to be our leader back there. The conversations I’ve had with him, I’ve been really impressed with how much he wants to do and show people. That’s exciting, because he’s talking about how he wants to have an impact. I would imagine him and [Brandon] Carlo, initially in my mind, they’re going to have to handle the top lines of other teams, the [Sidney] Crosby, [Nikita] Kucherov lines.”
With Grzelcyk out, Montgomery will mix and match his second and third pairs. Derek Forbort is a left-side option, Connor Clifton on the right, and Mike Reilly and Jakub Zboril are left shots who can play the right side. Montgomery noted that Zboril could “get significant minutes” on his off side until Grzelcyk returns.
Montgomery isn’t much concerned with his goaltending, reasoning that Jeremy Swayman and Linus Ullmark have a good thing going. The “competition” to be opening-night starter isn’t much of one, in the coach’s mind.
“They were a great tandem in the NHL, and you have to have a great tandem to have success in the NHL with the condensed schedules, the three-in-fours, the back-to-backs,” Montgomery said. “I don’t like goalies going back-to-back unless you have [Andrei] Vasilevskiy and you need to make a push. I want those guys like the rest of the team culture, it’s all about the Bruins winning and what helps the Bruins the most that night.”
The Bruins entered the weekend some $2.4 million above the salary cap ceiling, according to CapFriendly, and will have to be under the $82.5 million limit by opening night. They can do that by placing the cap hits of McAvoy, Marchand, and Grzelcyk (combined value: approximately $19.3 million) on long-term injured reserve. They would then be able to exceed the cap by the difference.
When those players return, perhaps by late November at the earliest, tougher decisions will have to be made. It sounds like Foligno (expiring $3.8 million deal), who was not bought out this summer, will be a part of the main group. Reilly, who has similar skills as Grzelcyk and Zboril, could be a trade candidate (he is signed for the next two years at $3 million per). A push from Lysell or Studnicka, among other right-shot forwards, could have general manager Don Sweeney finding a taker for Smith, whose $3.1 million contract is expiring.
Lysell, who showed impressive flashes in Sweden’s bronze-medal effort at the World Junior Championship re-do in Edmonton, caught Montgomery’s eye but didn’t change his expectation.
“It’s going to be his first time playing against men,” Montgomery said. “We’re hoping that he excels in camp, right? The tough part is earning your way into the NHL, it’s every-night compete, every-night full mental focus of when you don’t have your A-game, how do you get your C-game to a B-game when you don’t have your legs. You guys have seen it with Pastrnak, I’ve seen it with Robby Thomas and [Jordan] Kyrou in St. Louis — it takes a couple years to understand. Not everyone’s a Bergeron.
“Sidney Crosby can go 16-17 games without a goal — that’s how hard it is to produce in this league. It’s going to happen to a young player who has been an offensive player his whole career. We’ve seen Studnicka produce in the American league, he comes here, it’s hard to find a rhythm because the Marchands of the world aren’t giving up their minutes. So now you’ve got to find a way to produce in 12 to 14 minutes.”
Montgomery will have three assistant coaches on the bench and one (goalie coach Bob Essensa) as his eye in the sky. Chris Kelly will wear the headset that is wired to video coach Sean Andrake. Kelly will handle prescout, faceoff preparation, and “will have the most insight as to whether a team is making a change as to what we’ve seen,” Montgomery said. “He’ll be able to make marks” — telling Andrake to create a video clip of what they just saw on the ice — “and he and I will watch that in between periods.”
Kelly will also handle forward development along with Joe Sacco, an assistant in Boston since 2014.
“Joe is going to be someone I’m going to lean on heavily for the defensive-zone coverage, and also the personalities on the team — who to push, who to pull, who to give a pat on the back, who can get a little nudge, because he knows them inside and out,” Montgomery said. “I’m very fortunate to have Joe here in that kind of capacity that understands the people at a high level. Kells is the same way because he played with a lot [of them], and I’m excited to see his growth as a coach. I’m going to expect him to really [help] on the development of the third and fourth lines because he excelled at it so much when the Bruins won the Cup [in 2011].”
Sacco will handle the penalty kill, which ranked ninth in the league last season after two years of top-three finishes, and newcomer John Gruden will run the power play, handle skill development for defensemen, and be a second set of eyes on the offensive zone.
Like most coaches, Montgomery plans to delegate all things goalie to his specialist, Essensa, but he won’t be leaving him on an island.
“I’m going to be asking Bob questions like, whether it’s a goal we score or a goal they score, ‘Am I missing something? That’s a good goal, isn’t it? That’s a hard save for the goaltender? Should their goalie have had that shot?’ ” Montgomery said. “And also tendencies of goalies and anything he can add on the power play or penalty kill — our goalie, we should give that up instead of this … and their goalie leans to the right, so let’s shoot to the high left corner.”
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