David Backes can see Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson thinking, the wheels turning in the rookie center’s head as he tries to settle the puck on his stick and make the next play.
A natural center and veteran of 11 seasons, Backes has an instinctual feel for these observations. He also understands how daunting the task can be for a rookie trying to crack an NHL roster, something Forsbacka Karlsson will try to do in the next two weeks of training camp.
“A young kid playing center in the NHL, it’s a tough undertaking, it’s a steep learning curve,” Backes said. “That being said, helping him along, having an older guy like myself can helpfully expedite that curve.
“He’s a guy that is a cerebral player, thinks the game well. But at times that can be cumbersome as well, slows you down a little bit. [I’m] trying to communicate to him that he has great instincts, that he can trust those instincts and go out there and play fast.”
Forsbacka Karlsson centered a line with Backes on his right and Frank Vatrano on his left during the third day of training camp Sunday in Brighton. It’s the 20-year-old Swede’s first full circuit in the Bruins program after he signed a three-year deal last season after his sophomore season at Boston University.
He played one NHL game last season, a quiet debut in the final regular-season contest. After spending the summer in Boston, Forsbacka Karlsson competed in rookie camp last weekend in Buffalo — a soft warm-up for the rigors of training with the Bruins veterans.
“[There are] more mature players to make better plays,” Forsbacka Karlsson said about the transition from rookie camp to training camp. “That’s probably the biggest difference.”
Coach Bruce Cassidy said the Bruins have been pleased with what they’ve seen from Forsbacka Karlsson defensively, but that they’re pushing him to grow when he has the puck on his stick.
Cassidy said the rookie’s offensive game began to flower toward the end of rookie camp, but that the slate of preseason games will be a better test.
“JFK is focused right now on thinking the game through out there and we’re encouraging him to play a little more,” Cassidy said. “He’s analytical, makes him a good player, but we’re going to ask him to get out of that zone a little bit and attack more.”
The Bruins are well stocked at the center position, which will make it challenging for Forsbacka Karlsson to make the roster. Ryan Spooner and Riley Nash are the candidates to center the third and fourth lines, respectively.
Spooner, who signed a one-year deal in the summer and avoided arbitration, is looking to prove himself to the Bruins’ decision makers. Backes, who said during captains’ practices earlier this month that the Bruins may experiment with moving him back to center, provides the team with a contingency plan should Spooner falter.
That said, both Vatrano and Backes observed that Day 3 of training camp was Forsbacka Karlsson’s best.
“He’s new to the system so for me and Backes, the biggest thing is talking, make sure we communicate with one another,” Vatrano said. “Today was Day 3, you could see him getting better and better every day, getting more and more comfortable on the puck. Obviously there’s going to be a little nerves, his first NHL training camp and he’s trying to make the roster just like the rest of us.”
Backes indicated that he and his linemates may not play as a unit until the Bruins’ second game of the preseason Tuesday at TD Garden. The roster will be split when the team heads to Quebec for its preseason opener Monday against the Canadiens.
Until then, Backes, Forsbacka Karlsson, and Vatrano will continue to craft their chemistry. When that clicks, Forsbacka Karlsson will have his best chance to prove whether he belongs or is a year away from contributing at the NHL level.
“[On Sunday] he was thinking ahead of the play rather than thinking of the play happening at the moment,” Backes said. “I don’t want to criticize because my first camp I was probably a disaster and if I had video I probably wouldn’t want anybody to see it. He scored a couple great goals today, I think he’s on track but the quicker that he gets on pace the better it’ll be for everyone.”
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Cassidy said that by the end of Sunday’s practice the roster for Monday’s preseason opener had not been set, but that he will lean toward bringing more younger players than veterans. Cassidy did say that Zane McIntyre and Malcolm Subban will be the goaltenders.