FLUTO SHINZAWA | ON HOCKEY
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On Thursday, after missing the last three games because of an upper-body injury, Jake DeBrusk likely will be cleared to pull on his uniform again.
It would leave the Bruins with a decision. It’s one they haven’t had all year because of their wretched run of injuries.
Given their luck, an anvil could whistle out of the sky and plunk on a player’s head, rendering the decision irrelevant. But at this point, they are at the 23-man maximum. They would have to move a player to activate DeBrusk from injured reserve.
For once, they have some options, partly because of David Backes’s sooner-than-expected return.
“Teams have injuries — they just generally spread them out through the year,” said coach Bruce Cassidy, who has yet to oversee a fully healthy roster. “Now it’s kind of a nice problem to have. The more good players you have to choose from, the easier it is for a coach, at the end of the day.
“It’s not easy telling a player not to play. I don’t enjoy that part of the game. I never have, especially the guys here who are working hard. But that’s the business side. We can play 20 guys every night. We’re trying to put the 20 best out there who deserve to play.”
The Bruins have temporary options. Ryan Spooner did not practice Wednesday because of an injury related to his groin tear. If doctors prescribe inactivity, he could switch spots with DeBrusk on injured reserve, leaving the team at the 23-player threshold.
Another choice would be to assign Anders Bjork for an AHL tuneup. The rookie has no points and one shot in the last two games. He was unavailable for the previous seven games because of an undisclosed injury (skating full speed into Toronto’s Matt Martin often results in multiple forms of trauma). Bjork could benefit from regular shifts in Providence.
The solution that makes the most sense, however, would be the most difficult one to make: assigning Matt Beleskey to Providence.
Nobody projected such a career tumble for Beleskey, who won’t turn 30 until June. The Bruins signed him to a five-year, $19 million contract, expecting he would fulfill the term as a reasonable replacement for Milan Lucic. The left wing has not even progressed to the halfway point of his deal without making it look like a missed forecast equivalent to driving rain instead of sunny skies.
He has yet to score in 14 games this season. He has dressed in only one of the last seven games. As uncomfortable as it has been to encounter Beleskey in suit and tie at the rink, he has given his coach no reason to grant him a different wardrobe.
Only three other NHL forwards have dressed for 14 or more games and gone scoreless: Matt Moulson, Scott Wilson, and Matt Stajan. The Sabres placed Moulson on waivers Monday. Wilson has been traded twice. Beleskey’s turn to experience a transaction could be next.
Beleskey started the season definitively behind Brad Marchand and DeBrusk on the depth chart at left wing. His competition included Tim Schaller and Frank Vatrano, who have since pulled ahead. The Bruins even took temporary looks at Spooner and Kenny Agostino at left wing in slots higher than Beleskey’s fourth-line residence.
Neither Spooner nor Agostino appears to be a long-term solution. But the Bruins believe they have a third-line answer behind Marchand and DeBrusk.
While Beleskey has fought to find his game, Danton Heinen has entered the competition and rocketed past the veteran to claim, for now, the No. 3 job.
Although Heinen was coming off a point-per-game pace in last season’s AHL playoffs, he did not do enough in camp to earn an NHL paycheck. But the second-year pro has unlocked the qualities that have made him a keeper: hardness on the puck and a heightened battle level to complement the speed, skill, and hands he has.
Of the options on the Bruins’ table, assigning Heinen to Providence is not one of them, not when he can play both wings and play responsibly in all situations.
“I can’t see Danton Heinen being sent down,” Cassidy said. “He’s playing very well for us. Some of the other options are probably available to us. We’d have to look at it and go from there.
“I don’t want to speak out of turn. But with Heinen, I think he’s played very well and deserves to be in the lineup.”
Beleskey would have to clear waivers to be assigned to Providence. No team would assume the remainder of his contract. The Bruins would receive a pro-rated $1.025 million of cap relief from the left wing’s $3.8 million average annual value.
The best scenario would be for Beleskey to play regularly in the AHL, feel better about his game, and be available for a more effective NHL reentry when injuries strike again. He is too young to be an NHL afterthought.
But for now, the Bruins have better options at left wing.
“We don’t necessarily want to tinker with it,” Cassidy said of his current lineup. “Other guys will have to push their way in. When they do, stay in.
“It’s not about second chances necessarily. I think every player that’s here has been given an opportunity to play. Some more than others. I get that. But if this is our best lineup, it’s our best lineup.
“We’ll have to make the appropriate decision when we get at that number. That may come as early as tomorrow. When we do, we’ll have an internal discussion of what makes us the best team and how we’d want to approach that.”
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