MONTREAL – There are many things Ryan Spooner can do that Gregory Campbell cannot.
Spooner is a dynamic straight-line, 0-to-60 burner with an arsenal of slippery close-quarters moves. The 22-year-old Bruin has a good and accurate shot, which he demonstrated with a first-period goal in Tuesday’s 3-2 preseason-opening loss to the Canadiens at the Bell Centre. Spooner is as creative on offense as Jackson Pollock was when he stood over a canvas.
Campbell falls short in these areas. But the veteran fourth-line center’s shifts are not in one-to-one correlation with scoring chances allowed.
Spooner, on the other hand, was on the ice for Montreal’s game-winning goal and a handful of other opportunities. Defensive awareness is not a pillar of Spooner’s NHL game.
“It’s OK and it’s exciting to see a guy be great offensively. We love his game offensively,” said Bruins coach Claude Julien. “At the same time, you can score one goal. But if you give up two, you’re not helping your team. We need commitment from that part of his game. He said he’s going to work hard at it. But it’s a good start for him. The goal he scored was one we’ve asked him to do — take pucks to the net. That’s a step in the right direction for him.”
Spooner presents the Bruins with a dilemma. Spooner, the team’s second-round pick in 2010, is a center. He is most dangerous offensively when he’s flowing through the ice. His game is not suited for stops and starts and power work on the walls.
Spooner will not displace David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron, or Carl Soderberg. They are heavy, skilled, and dependable two-way centers. The only job Spooner can grab belongs to Campbell, who has yet to skate in camp because of a core injury.
But if Spooner gets stuck in the defensive zone every time he rolls over the boards, he will not last long for Julien or any other NHL coach who is bent on preventing goals. Spooner is skilled enough to help his line — he centered Daniel Paille and Simon Gagne Tuesday — push the offensive pace and hunt for goals.
Spooner landed a game-high five shots and won nine of 13 faceoffs in 16:40 of ice time. He played on the No. 2 power-play unit with Gagne, Soderberg, Joe Morrow, and Chris Casto.
But Spooner exhibited so much slackness defensively that his line spent far too much time chasing the puck rather than directing it the other way. This is not the manner in which any team, especially the Bruins, wants to play.
Under Julien, the Bruins have been a checking team that scores. Their offense comes from their defense. When they make strong, stout plays, they turn pucks over and roar the other way with speed, power, and numbers. They are not built to chase.
Centers are critical in Julien’s defense. They support the defensemen down low. They seal off crossing passes. They’re strong on bodies. They backcheck with a purpose. They don’t float in the defensive zone.
“As a centerman, you’ve got to be reliable down low,” Julien said. “If we look at one part of the game, it’s real exciting. If you look at the other part of the game, this is where we have an issue right now. You have to be reliable. Even your teammates want you to be reliable. If you’re on the ice, not doing your job, and getting scored on, eventually your teammates will turn on you too. That’s the biggest thing we want Spoons to work on. He’s such a good skater. But there’s times he just backchecks slowly. He could be backchecking better. There’s a little bit of commitment there that we’re going to need from him.”
In the first period, Spooner did everything his bosses have wanted him to do. Nikita Scherbak coughed up the puck in the defensive zone. Spooner jumped on the opportunity. He used his body to shield the puck from Greg Pateryn. He attacked the net. At 1:17 of the first, Spooner slipped the puck past Dustin Tokarski to give the Bruins a 1-0 lead.
“I had some chances last year like that, and I just kind of pulled up,” Spooner said. “So I just tried to take the puck to the net and it seemed to work out.”
Spooner had some chemistry with Paille. They are two of the fastest players in the organization. Their speed pushed the Canadiens back and gave them offensive sniffs throughout the game. They killed penalties together.
But in the third, Spooner couldn’t keep Christian Thomas from advancing deep into the Boston zone. A flat-footed Spooner tried to steer Thomas wide. Thomas carried the puck down the left-side wall and threw it out front. Drayson Bowman was credited with the game-winning net-front goal with 48 seconds left in regulation.
“I was in the middle there and I forced him to the outside,” Spooner said. “I thought I did a pretty decent job. He threw a backhander to the front of the net. It seemed to hop over.”
The Bruins have an opportunity to remake the fourth line with Campbell unavailable and Shawn Thornton gone. They could make it a skilled unit that possesses the puck and plays with tempo. This still could happen.
Perhaps Alexander Khokhlachev will be the responsible center to make it so.
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.