The dawn of the 2022-23 NHLseason arrives Monday, barely a month before the Bruins open play Oct 12 in Washington, with the start of informal captain’s practices in Brighton, followed by a prolonged rookie camp held again in Buffalo (Thursday through Monday).
Most of the focus will be on the freshmen, who’ll face fellow wannabes in games against Ottawa, Pittsburgh, and New Jersey across the five days in hopes of being invited to the Black and Gold varsity camp that comes to order Sept. 21.
At first glance, largely because of the re-signings of top centers Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci, there might not appear to be much room for a kid to filch a spot up front, even with Brad Marchand (double hip surgery) hors de combat for the first 6-8 weeks. But first glances can be deceiving.
New coach Jim Montgomery sounds inclined to start workouts with Bergeron between newcomer Pavel Zacha and Jake DeBrusk, pairing Krejci with Taylor Hall and David Pastrnak. Krjeci long wanted the prolific, shot-ready Pastrnak in his sidecar. He only had to motor off to the Czech Republic for a year to get his desired line change.
Once Marchand returns, Zacha likely bumps over to a No. 3 line with Charlie Coyle his pivot. But that, at least for now, is a late-November discussion. Reminder: Strong starts are essential. In a typical season, most of the 16 postseason qualifiers already have placed dibs on their piece of the playoff pie by US Thanksgiving.
Beyond Coyle as the No. 3 center, though, there is more room for a kid to make a statement in Buffalo that many might think. Lots of room. Of the five remaining jobs on the bottom two lines, no one should feel safe — not after witnessing coach Bruce Cassidy get the gate some three weeks, he said, after being told, “See ya in September” by general manager Don Sweeney.
Largely because of their paychecks on expiring deals, Nick Foligno ($3.8 million) and Craig Smith ($3.1 million) likely will land two of the five job slots. If not for their money profile, though, they have to be considered vulnerable, especially the well-intentioned but underperforming Foligno.
Injuries played a factor, true, but Foligno produced a meager 2-11–13 across 64 games last season, augmented by a lone assist in seven playoff games against the Hurricanes. If you’re a kid in Buffalo this coming week with a goal to make it to the show, then the bull’s-eye on the target has to be: A. Make it to varsity camp; B. Make life utterly miserable for Foligno, who will be 35 in October.
Smith’s line was moderately better (74 games, 16-20–36). But he then went (0-0–0) in his seven playoff games — a resounding disappointment when, once again, Cassidy’s forward group couldn’t moxie-up in the offensive zone, be it for territory or scoring chances. Foligno and Smith couldn’t, or wouldn’t, get to where they needed to be to make something happen.
Beyond those two high-priced veterans, Montgomery’s other obvious candidates for bottom-six employment include Tomas Nosek at center and an assortment of wingers, such as Trent Frederic, Chris Wagner, Oskar Steen, Jack Studnicka, and Marc McLaughlin.
Again, though, no one in that group has a résumé that should make them feel comfortable. If Fabian Lysell or John Beecher arrive in Buffalo with the mind-set to kick down the door, it’s there to be ripped from the hinges. Maybe with one kick.
Lysell and Beecher are first-round draftees. Lysell has enough speed and stick skill to make a statement. The 6-foot-3-inch, 210-pound Beecher has the size. Attitude alone doesn’t win a roster spot, but it can go a long way in securing employment.
Far too many Boston wannabes, especially among the forwards, have shown up at rookie camp in recent years looking and playing as if getting to the NHL is simply a function of institutional osmosis. Get drafted. Put in the time, be it two, three, four years. Yeah, whatever. Listen to all the tips and cues and kudos from the expansive player development ensemble, and one day, shazam, there will be a shirt hanging for you on Causeway Street.
Good kids, some with skill and NHL-level talent, but by and large absent the requisite salt and vinegar in their games. Granted, the fight game is gone (moment of silent meditation, please), so no kid literally punches his way into varsity camp the way kids did through the 1970s and ‘80s. Yet it remains possible to throw punches, albeit now in the form of compete level, simple desire, maybe by rattling boards or, be still our hearts, fighting through traffic to get to the net. That’s still OK under the rulebook, right?
On that metric alone, based on the aforementioned vulnerable holdovers for lines 3 and 4, maybe we’ll see a kid or two hit the ice in Buffalo this coming week ready to seize the moment rather than merely act like a dot on the projected career graph.
Realistically, the job opportunities lessen greatly, if not entirely, once moving into the back end of the lineup.
Goaltending is a closed shop on the varsity. The fight among kids Brandon Bussi and Kyle Keyser is for one of two jobs at AHL Providence, where free agent signee Keith Kinkaid will stand ready if Linus Ullmark or Jeremy Swayman get dinged.
Even with franchise defenseman Charlie McAvoy (shoulder surgery) idled for the first couple of months, there is enough depth and experience in the defensive corps for Montgomery to shape a capable backline each night.
It was Connor Clifton, then 23, who lit up his second rookie camp with dollops of bold, oft-unorthodox, play in September 2018, forcing management to take a longer look. Yep, a little gumption goes a long way.
BEEN THERE, DONE THAT
Grier knows what it takes to succeed
The five pals from St. Sebastian’s, dreaming one day they might make it to the NHL, piled into teammate Marty Clapton’s car for the long drive from Needham to Quebec City for the June 1993 NHL Draft.
Jeff Connolly, selected No. 69 the year before by Vancouver, was along for the ride, joined by Brian McCarthy, Mike Pergola, Mike Grier, and Clapton.
“Can’t remember the hotel we stayed in, but it was nothing fancy, that’s for sure,” recalled Grier. “Pretty sure we got two rooms … in, out, and gone.”
Grier, now 47 and named in July as GM of the Sharks, was the only St. Seb’s player in that group to be drafted that weekend, selected No. 219 (Round 9) by the Blues. He also was the only one to play in the NHL.
Connolly, a right winger, played one year at Boston College, one more in the WHL, then stopped playing after four years in the minor pros.. McCarthy, a 6-3 left winger, played four seasons at Notre Dame, followed by five more in Europe. Clapton, another 6-3 winger, graduated from Brown in 1997 and lasted 10 seasons in the minors, most of those in the ECHL. Based on a number of hockey websites, it appears Pergola stopped playing upon graduating from Williams in 1997.
Nearly 30 years gone by, Grier’s No. 1 charge in reshaping the Sharks will be identifying who can and cannot play. Who are the pretenders and who are the contenders. Nothing better defines the GM’s mission, in all sports.
Few kids who pile into the car, often no matter their dream and skill set, actually end up making it. Grier, who joined the Boston University Terriers in the fall of 1993 on a half-scholarship offered by coach Jack Parker, only some 36 months later made the Oilers directly out of his first rookie camp.
His NHL debut came only some 3-4 weeks later, facing the Sabres.
“Long time ago, I can’t remember who my linemates were that night,” noted Grier. “But I do remember lining up my first shift, and it was against Rob Ray. He looks at me and says, ‘So, are you a tough guy?’ And I was like, ‘Nope … no, no, no!’ ”
Grier and Ray, the latter of whom amassed 3,207 penalty minutes over his 900-game career, did not tangle that night. Years later, flipped from Washington to Buffalo at the 2004 trade deadline, he and Ray were briefly Sabres teammates.
“The next year, he was in the broadcast booth,” said Grier. “Good guy.”
Grier spent three seasons at BU, opting to turn pro with the Oilers, who had acquired his rights in the August 1995 swap that also landed Curtis Joseph in Edmonton. He did not get off to a roaring start at Comm. Ave., said Grier, recalling that Parker held him out of the lineup for the first few games. A standout at St. Sebastian’s, it was the first time he’d ever been scratched, including his days in youth hockey.
“Eye-opening for me,” recalled Grier. “It was the first time I was told I wouldn’t be playing, that I wasn’t good enough to be in the lineup. So, yeah, eye-opening and a little bit disappointing, but at the same time I think it wasn’t the worst thing in the world. It made me realize how difficult college hockey is and what the competition was just to get in the lineup. So it made practice harder, put in the time in the gym, to make me realize this is serious business, and if I want to play here, well, nothing’s given. It kind of stoked the competitive fire in me — and it was something that helped me throughout my career.
“It made me realize, you have to battle just to get in the lineup. And once I did, it was something where I wasn’t going to let my standards and my work in practice and in the gym ever slide — once I got in there I didn’t ever want to come back out.”
All done, or just taking a break?
Entering the weekend, Jumbo Joe Thornton remained without an NHL contract for the first time since his first camp with the Bruins in September 1997. Ditto for Zdeno Chara.
It’s possible that both Hall of Fame sure-shots have seen the end of their playing days, but it’s also possible they’ll both take time off now, stay in shape, and hitch on with a club in the second half or closer to the trade deadline.
The new season will begin with Thornton ranked No. 6 for games: 1,714, with Big Z No. 7 (1,680). Chara holds a slight edge in playoff games, 200-187, and a one-Cup edge in titles.
According to capfriendly.com, Thornton’s contracts totaled $110.6 million over his quarter-century, and Chara $99.54 million.
A report this past week out of San Jose said Thornton and family have moved back to the Bay Area. The Charas, who spent a chunk of the summer in Slovakia, are back in Boston with the start of another school year for the kids.
The Bruins are scheduled on Monday to release their rookie camp roster and day-by-day practice/play plan in Buffalo, where the Canadiens frosh also will be training for a few days. The Penguins are only flying in for only their game Saturday vs. the Bruins … Perhaps the punctuating moment of Mike Grier’s Boston University career was the thunderous smack he put on Boston College defenseman Greg Callahan at the Garden in the 1995 Beanpot. Head down, Callahan was moving the puck up ice from his end when a charging Grier hammered him to the ground in the right faceoff circle. “Yeah, people still remind me, especially around Beanpot time, my kids or their friends,” said Grier, the hit preserved in perpetuity on youtube.com. “Just one of those hits, where it lines up perfectly.” The BU-BC rivalry accentuated the moment, along with the fact that Callahan (Belmont Hill) and Grier (St. Sebastian’s) also faced one another in a rich schoolboy rivalry … Now two months gone by into the negotiation window, 2023 free agents David Pastrnak (UFA) and Jeremy Swayman (RFA) have yet to come to terms on contract extensions. Keep in mind: Pastrnak agreed to his current deal (six years, $40 million) on Sept. 14, 2017, which will be six years ago as of Wednesday. The longer he waits, the bigger the figure. Exhibit A: the seven-year, $50 million whopper Tage Thompson (56 career goals) just signed in Buffalo. Right now, it looks like Pasta’s floor would be the $9.5 million AAV on the deal Charlie McAvoy is about to enter. Depending on length of term (three or four years), Swayman’s deal likely will be in the $3.5 million-$4 million AAV range … The Canadiens are expected to arrive in Buffalo with 6-4 right winger Juraj Slafkovsky, the No. 1 pick in the July draft, in their lineup. The Bruins and Habs kids won’t go head to head during camp, but it will offer a first glimpse of a kid who could be a franchise centerpiece for a number of years in a Boston-Montreal rivalry that has lost much of its luster in recent years. That could change if the strapping 18-year-old Slovak turns out to be the real deal … As of Dec. 1, the Bruins will stand two years from reaching the 100-year anniversary of their first NHL game, a 2-1 win over the Montreal Maroons at the Boston Arena (now doing business as Northeastern’s Matthews Arena). The sons of Charles F. Adams won only five more times that season (6-24-0) and were led in scoring by Jimmy Herbert (30 games, 24 points), a right-shot center from Collingwood, Ontario. No other Bruin reached double figures. Anyone ever mention scoring depth can be such a bugaboo? ... For decades, a humongous portrait of Queen Elizabeth II hung from the Winnipeg Arena rafters, which had HRH staring down benevolently throughout the residences of the WHA and NHL Jets. Your faithful puck chronicler was in the press box the night of Oct. 26, 1980, when a goal late in the third period by Wayne Cashman delivered a 7-7 tie for coach Gerry Cheevers’s Black and Gold. Wally Harris was on the whistle. It sure looked like Cashman gloved the puck and threw it into the net for the equalizer, though it was all good by Harris’s eye. It also looked to me like the Queen winked Wally’s way before the ensuing faceoff, but you know, memories tend to get a bit fuzzy over time. Cheerio.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com.